Muslims in the SS I


Commander of the 13th SS Division, SS-Standartenführer Desiderius Hampel confers with a Chetnik commander in the summer of 1944.

The SS also recruited thousands of Muslims into its ranks. In fact, Himmler shared Hitler’s favorable attitude toward Muslim soldiers. On 2 March 1943, after a meeting with the Reichsführer-SS, General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau wrote about Himmler’s enthusiasm for the foundation of the Muslim SS division in Bosnia:

Himmler certainly approved of my timidly voiced opinion that in the Bosnian Division the conventional SS cultural policy would be well complemented by the addition of field muftis. Christianity he dismissed simply on account of its softness. The hope for the paradise of Mohammed had at any cost to be fostered with the Bosnians since this guaranteed heroic performance.… Himmler regretted the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian military border and again and again spoke about the grand Bosnians and their fez.

In the following months Himmler would argue repeatedly in the same vein. As late as March 1945 he would praise “the dauntless Mohammedans” of the Waffen-SS. Like the Wehrmacht officers, he and his subordinates in the SS Head Office also frequently considered the global propagandistic impact of Muslim soldiers in German uniform. Imagining pan-Islamic unity, Gottlob Berger once explained the employment of Muslim units in southeastern Europe as an attempt “to reach out to the Mohammedans of the whole world, since these are 350 million people who are decisive in the struggle with the British Empire.” Similarly, an internal SS report emphasized that the division was to show the “entire Mohammedan world” that the Third Reich was ready to confront the “common enemies of National Socialism and Islam.”

SS recruiters first began to target Muslims in the Balkans, where, in early 1943, the partisan war threatened to divert more and more troops from the German army, already heavily weakened by defeats in the East and in North Africa. The largest Muslim SS unit of the region was formed in Bosnia. From February 1943 on, Himmler recruited thousands of Muslims into the 13th SS Waffen Mountain Division (13. Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS), which later was renamed “Handžar” (Handschar). The formation was enthusiastically supported by the leading Muslim autonomists, who, in their memorandum of 1 November 1942, had already suggested the establishment of a volunteer unit under German command. Handžar’s deployment took place under the auspices of the Croatian ethnic German SS-Division “Prinz Eugen” and its choleric commander, SS-Gruppenführer Artur Phleps. A considerable part of the division comprised members of the feared Muslim militia of Major Muhamed Hadžiefendić, which had been created by the Ustaša government in northeastern Bosnia in 1941. In the field, the leading German recruiter of Handžar became Karl von Krempler, who had grown up in Serbia and Turkey and was fluent in Bosnian. Although the majority of the Muslim population appeared to approve of the establishment of this division, fewer of them initially volunteered than had been anticipated. In time, though, recruiters enlisted around 20,000 volunteers. Praised by German propaganda in Croatia as “warriors against Bolshevism and Judaism,” they were to become both a political and a military force in the region.

The Ustaša regime followed these events with the utmost suspicion. Its initial attempts to control the project failed. The SS gave short shrift to Zagreb’s requests to include the word “Ustaša” in the name of the division. In the end, the Germans assured Pavelić that around 15 percent of Handžar would be made up of Catholics and that his regime would be involved in the recruitment process. In reality, Bosnians perceived the division as a “Mohammedan issue,” as Winkler put it. Pavelić’s representative and liaison officer, Alija Šuljak, a Muslim who was notorious for his aggressive Ustaša propaganda, was quickly sidelined by German recruitment officers around Krempler. Many Muslims even deserted the Croatian army to join the new SS formation. Although Pavelić saw his hands tied, his regime missed no opportunity to hinder the establishment of the Muslim division. In April, Phleps complained to Berlin that the Croatian government “uses all possible means to obstruct or at least to delay the formation considerably.” The head of the SS Reich Security Head Office, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, reported similar complaints. In some cases, the Croats came at night for Muslim volunteers who had already been enlisted in the ranks of the SS, forced them out of their beds, and sent them to Croatian army barracks. Furious, Himmler ordered his police commissioner on the spot to clamp down on this practice and to search both Croatian barracks and the concentration camps Nova Gradiška and Jasenovac, declaring that he had “definitive and very precise reports” about young men who had been “transported to concentration camps simply because they have enlisted with us.” The perpetrators, he suggested, should themselves be taken to concentration camps or be executed.

Eager to avoid further Croatian sabotage, the SS moved Handžar to southern France, where the division was trained under the command of First World War veteran SS-Oberführer Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig. The German officials in the Balkans, most notably Horstenau, expressed concern about the transfer at this critical point of the war. Himmler, however, coolly rebuffed any such objections. But before long the concerns of the officers on the ground proved to be well founded. In the summer of 1943, when Tito initiated a major offensive in Bosnia, the relatives of Muslim volunteers were targeted first by the partisans. In France, their sons and husbands soon got wind of the developments at home. They knew that their families were left completely vulnerable and without any viable defense. Shocked by these events, especially since the Germans had promised them employment in their own country to protect their homes, many of the Bosnian volunteers became disillusioned. Discontent rose. In the night of 16–17 September, a group of soldiers rebelled and shot an officer. Although caught off guard, the Germans quickly put down the revolt, with fifteen soldiers killed. Numerous rebels were arrested and publicly executed by firing squads. Berger blamed not the Muslims but the (around 2,800) Catholics of the formation. A bit later Hitler expressed the same opinion, stressing that only the Muslims of the division had been proven trustworthy. Soon Handžar was moved to the Silesian training ground at Neuhammer, where Himmler visited twice and gave his motivational speech. Al-Husayni, too, was sent there. Publishing a photo series of his visit to Neuhammer, the Wiener Illustrierte explained to its readers that the Muslims were to fight in the SS ranks with “fanatic faith in their heart,” knowing “that only on the side of Germany can they sustain their freedom of faith and freedom of life.” Finally, in late February 1944, the Muslims were sent back to the Balkans. “Our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has kept his promise. A new era is dawning. We are coming!,” announced a propaganda leaflet distributed throughout Bosnia. Another one declared, “Now we are here!” to fight “every enemy of the homeland.” Hitler and Himmler had personally approved these pamphlets. Handžar was mostly used for antipartisan operations in northeastern Bosnia and acquired a grim reputation for its brutality and violent excesses. A British liaison officer with Tito’s partisans reported on the division’s atrocities: “It behaves well in Moslem territory, but in Serb populated areas massacres all civil population without mercy or regard for age or sex.” After the war, an officer of Handžar gave a graphic report of crimes committed by members of the division: “One woman was killed and her heart taken out, carried around and then thrown into a ditch.” Hermann Fegelein, Himmler’s liaison officer at Hitler’s headquarters, reported to Hitler on the atrocities of Handžar during a military briefing on 6 April 1944, describing how the Muslim division had spread fear across the Balkans: “They kill them with only the knife. There was a man who was wounded. He had his arm tied up and with the left hand still finished off 17 enemies. There are also cases where they cut out their enemy’s heart.” Hitler was not interested. “I couldn’t care less” (Das ist Wurst), he replied, and carried on with the meeting’s agenda. A few months later, an internal Wehrmacht report noted: “Muslims have done very well, and so they must be extensively supported and strengthened by military and civil agencies.” Berger, too, was impressed, declaring that “fighting against Tito and the Communists thus becomes for the Moslems a holy war.” When Kersten asked him about Handžar’s military performance, he replied: “First class, they are as tough as the best German divisions were at the beginning of the war. They regard their weapons as sacred.… The Moslems cling to their flag with the same passionate courage, the Prophet’s ancient green flag with a white half-moon, stained with the blood of ancient battles, its staff splintered with bullets.”

Soon, however, it became clear that more local help was needed in the Balkans. Desperate for manpower, German recruiters began to target Albanian Muslims. In early 1944 Hitler endorsed the formation of a Muslim division of Albanians, the 21st SS Waffen Mountain Division (21. Waffen-Gebirgsdivision der SS), called “Skanderbeg.” Skanderbeg, which was deployed in Kosovo, in the area between Peć, Priština, and Prizren, was to operate in northern Albania and the borderlands of Montenegro. It consisted of recruits from the local civilian population, prisoners of war, and Albanian soldiers from Handžar. Enlistment of civilians was, as documents in the Albanian Central State Archive show, organized in close cooperation with the institutions of the Albanian puppet state, most importantly the Ministry of Defense. Keitel ordered the release of Albanian prisoners of war of the “Muslim faith” to swell the ranks of the unit. The basis of the new division, however, was formed by the Albanian contingent of Handžar. Himmler expected “great usefulness” from the unit since the Albanians who fought in Handžar had proved to be highly motivated and disciplined. In practice, though, the division suffered from a shortage of equipment and armaments and a lack of German staff to train new recruits. Over the summer and autumn of 1944, only a single battalion had been readied for combat and employed to fight partisans. “Day-in, day-out and night-in, night-out, Skanderbeg units advanced into the mountains to cover the flanks of the retreating troops,” observed a German soldier in Prizren. “They were the horror of the partisans.” Ultimately, the battalion became directly involved in Nazi crimes. In July 1944 the commander of Skanderbeg, August Schmidhuber, reported that his men had taken measures to crack down on “Jews, Communists and intellectual supporters of the Communists.” Between 28 May and 5 July the Albanians had captured “a sum total of 510 Jews, Communists, and supporters of gangs and political suspects.” Skanderbeg was also involved in retributive hangings following acts of sabotage. With the numbers of deaths and desertions rising, the division was shrinking steadily. Equally problematic was the formation of a third Muslim division of the Waffen-SS in the Balkans, the Bosnian 23rd SS Waffen Mountain Division (23. Waffen-Gebirgsdivision der SS), known as “Kama.” Established in June 1944, Kama comprised both Muslim civilians and several units from Handžar. After a series of desertions, the SS was compelled to disband the unit in late October 1944, only five months after its founding.

In the East, the SS was initially cautious. The Security Police and the Security Service of the SS in the Crimea were first to recruit Muslims systematically, using them as auxiliaries. Based on an agreement with the 11th Army, in early 1942 Otto Ohlendorf employed some of the recruited Crimean Muslims in his Einsatzgruppe D. Soon 1,632 Muslim volunteers were fighting in fourteen so-called Tatar self-defense units (Tatarenselbstschutzkompanien) of Einsatzgruppe D, scattered across the Crimean peninsula. An SS report about the volunteers praised the Tatars for being “explicitly opposed to Bolshevism, Jews, and Gypsies.” Ohlendorf’s right-hand man, Willi Seibert, noted that they had “proved their supreme worth” in combat against partisans. Eventually, SS officers developed the idea of founding another Muslim division in the East. Walter Schellenberg, head of the foreign intelligence of the SD, had discussed the deployment of a formation of Turkic and Tatar volunteers as early as 1941 in the Reich Security Head Office but had given up on these plans due to a lack of personnel and resources. In autumn 1943 the idea was revived and discussed by Schellenberg and Berger. On 14 October 1943, Schellenberg sent Berger a memorandum on the formation of a “Mohammedan Legion of the Waffen-SS” composed of Muslims from the Soviet Union. The “political-ideological basis” of this unit was to be “Islam alone,” it stated. Convinced that the division would have a political and military impact throughout the Islamic world, Schellenberg summarized his ultimate “aim” in one sentence: “Formation of Mohammedan units for the increasing revolutionization and winning over of the entire Islamic world.” Thrilled, Berger recommended the plan to Himmler. The deployment of an Eastern Muslim division was a “political matter of the highest significance and importance,” he stressed, by which “another part of the Mohammedan world would be won” for Germany’s war. Its formation would demonstrate “that we are serious about friendship with the Mohammedan world.”

The following month, Himmler began recruiting among Soviet Muslims for an Eastern Muslim SS Division (Ostmuselmanisches SS-Division), the name emphasizing the religious character of the formation. The Wehrmacht agreed to transfer its Turkic battalions 450 and I/94 to the SS, where they were to become the basis of the new division. Andreas Mayer-Mader, who was still in charge of his Muslim unit, now called Turk Battalion 450, and part of the Turkestani Legion, was recruited by the SS to become commander of the new formation. He seemed particularly suitable, as he claimed to be an expert in the Muslim faith and on the verge of converting to Islam. The Eastern Muslim SS Division was never fully employed, however. Mayer-Mader’s command remained limited to the division’s so-called 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment (1. Ostmuselmanisches SS-Regiment), which derived from the two Wehrmacht battalions. In early 1944 it contained only 800 men. In spring 1944 Fritz Sauckel, Hitler’s general plenipotentiary for labor deployment, released all of those Turkic and Tatar workers from the Labor Service who were willing to fight in the new Muslim unit. SS enlisters also recruited Muslims from prisoner of war camps. With the help of Josef Terboven, Reich commissar for Norway, the SS even screened the prisoner of war camps across Norway for a few hundred detained Muslims. The High Command of the Wehrmacht, though, was increasingly resistant to SS attempts to recruit from its Muslim legions, seeing the SS more and more as a rival in the East. Mayer-Mader, who faced resistance within his unit, was soon discharged, and later killed in mysterious circumstances. He was succeeded by several officers, among them the sadistic Hauptmann Heinz Billig (March–April) and the Nazi careerist SS-Hauptsturmführer Emil Hermann (April–July).100 The 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment first fought partisans in the area around Minsk before being sent to Poland to join the infamous Dirlewanger Regiment in the suppression of the Warsaw uprising—as was a regiment of the Azerbaijani Legion of the Wehrmacht.

Meanwhile, the SS continued to pursue the plan of the Eastern Muslim SS Division—now called the Eastern Turkic SS Corps (Osttürkische Waffenverband der SS). Responsibility for the recruitment of the Eastern Turkic Muslims now fell to Reiner Olzscha of the volunteer section of the SS Head Office. First, the SS needed a new commander, one who was familiar with the Muslim world. A German officer who had served in the Ottoman army during the First World War and a former colonial officer from the Dutch army were suggested. In the early summer of 1944, Berger finally found a suitable man—an officer familiar with “the Eastern Turkic-Islamic world.” Himmler’s new commander of the Eastern Turkic SS Corps was fifty-nine-year-old Wilhelm Hintersatz, better known as Harun al-Rashid Bey, an army officer from Brandenburg who had converted to Islam during the First World War and who had worked with Enver Pasha on the Ottoman general staff. During that time he had also met Otto Liman von Sanders, for whom he felt a deep admiration. The campaign for Islamic mobilization in the Great War had strongly influenced Hintersatz, as it had so many others. After 1918 he had become involved with the former Muslim prisoners of war from the Wünsdorf Camp and had served in Italian intelligence in Abyssinia in the 1930s, claiming in his curriculum vitae that the “trust of the native Mohammedans” had been his best “instrument” there. “The Mohammedans saw in me a fellow believer, who prayed with them without timidity in their mosque,” he boasted. He had “always been ready” to cut the “Achilles’ heel” of Germany’s “most dangerous enemy,” England, which, in his view, was Islam. Married with two children, the qualified engineer was not the archetypical adventurer. He had become involved with Islam and Islamic politics by chance. Playing up his “Islamic connections” and describing his “affiliation with Islam” and the trust he enjoyed among Muslims as his “essential instrument,” he had impressed SS officers. Before his appointment, al-Rashid had worked as a liaison officer of the Reich Security Head Office with the mufti of Jerusalem. Olzscha contacted al-Rashid in May: “I wish to make you a very concrete proposition, which also first and foremost considers the position which distinguishes you as a Mohammedan and former officer.” Indeed, within the SS Head Office, al-Rashid’s appointment was explained with reference to his “close relationships to the Islamic world” and the SS propaganda for the “Turkic-Islamic world.”

Muslims in the SS II

Der Großmufti von Jerusalem [Amin al Husseini] bei den bosnischen Freiwilligen der Waffen-SS. Der Großmufti ist auf dem Truppenübungsplatz ein[getroffen] und schreitet die Front der angetretenen Freiwilligen mit erhobenem Arm ab.

Amin al-Husayni, alongside SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen SS Karl-Gustav Sauberzweig, greeting Bosnian SS volunteers in November 1943.

The Eastern Turkic SS Corps under Harun al-Rashid was to become a reservoir of all Eastern Muslim volunteers. Its base became the 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment, although it was restructured into three, and later four, battalions (Crimea, Turkestan, Idel-Ural, and finally Azerbaijan). Al-Rashid’s most prominent volunteer was Prince Mansur Daoud, a distant cousin of King Faruq of Egypt, whose recruitment strengthened the unit’s pan-Islamic character. Impressed by his performance, al-Rashid reported that Daoud had proven to be a “substantial political factor” and that he, “in the closest cooperation with the chief mullah,” conducted “effective propaganda.” By December 1944 around 3,000 Muslims had been enlisted in the Eastern Turkic SS Corps; in early 1945 it had grown to 8,500. Ultimately, the formation of the complete corps failed, but the SS managed to mobilize significantly more Muslims than had fought in the 1st Eastern Muslim SS Regiment. In the end, the SS began enlisting every Eastern Muslim within its reach. In the summer of 1944, for instance, 800 former soldiers of the Tatar units, which had been evacuated from the Crimea to Romania, were recruited into the Tatar SS Waffen Mountain Brigade (Tatarische Waffen-Gebirgs-Brigade der SS) and fought, armed only with carbines, in Hungary before being integrated into al-Rashid’s corps. SS recruiters would even screen the Reich Commissariat Ostland for Muslim cannon fodder. In March 1944 the head of Vienna’s Islamic community, Salih Hadzicalić, was consulted by the SS Head Office about the Muslims of Vilnius, prompting the SS to contact Mufti Szynkiewicz about Muslims there. As late as November 1944, the SS command in Danzig reported to the SS Head Office on the “transfer of Muslim members of the police to the Waffen-SS,” specifically two Muslim soldiers who had been recruited in the Ostland. In late 1944 Himmler decided to organize some of the Eastern Muslims into two regiments of a newly founded Caucasian SS Corps (Kaukasischer Waffenverband der SS). Varying in size between 1,000 and 2,000 men, the corps was split into four regiments, of which two were to be Muslim or dominated by Muslims: Northern Caucasian and Azerbaijani (the non-Muslim regiments were Armenian and Georgian). The Azerbaijanis of the Eastern Turkic SS Corps, however, successfully petitioned not to be mixed with Christian Armenians and Georgians in this new corps but to remain in al-Rashid’s purely Islamic formation. As the war was nearing its end, the recruiting process became more and more chaotic. The morale of the troops suffered. In late December 1944 some of the men of the Turkestani regiment, led by their commander, Ghulam Alimov, revolted in the Hungarian-Slovakian border area. Along with 400 to 500 of his men, Alimov arrested all German officers and even executed some of them before escaping into the woods to join the Slovak partisans. In January 1945, however, many of the deserters returned, while only 250 to 300 stayed with the partisans. In the last months of the war, the corps fought in northern Italy, where it finally surrendered to the US Army.

From the beginning, officers in the SS Head Office understood the massive mobilization of Eastern Muslims as part of a general campaign that aimed to revolutionize all Muslims of the Soviet Union against Moscow. A particularly eager proponent of this policy was Emil Hermann. A veteran officer of the SS, Hermann had been responsible for the military and political organization of the Eastern Muslim SS troops before briefly taking over command of the 1st Eastern Muslim Regiment. Olzscha explained after the war that Hermann had hoped to advance his career through the Islamic question and in fact aspired to run an office for Islamic affairs, planned in the SS Head Office. As early as 14 December 1943, Hermann referred to the endeavor to “set Islam in motion” (den Islam in Bewegung bringen werden) in a general memorandum about the foundation of the Eastern SS formation. Although the paper spoke in general terms about the “registration of the currently available Muslim peoples with the aim of employing them in the fight against the enemy powers,” it was mainly concerned with the Muslims of the Soviet Union. Compared to the Arabs, their hatred of foreign rule, which was based on their religiosity, was even more powerful, Hermann wrote. Their “great love of freedom” and the “teaching of Islam” generated a “tremendous pride,” which the SS had to consider in order not to make the same mistakes as the Wehrmacht. Berger reacted to the memorandum with one of his simple notes in the margins: “Yes, agreed!” Five days earlier, when meeting Gerd Schulte, an officer of the SS Head Office who was assigned to oversee the establishment of the Muslim division, Mayer-Mader suggested that the SS should become the protector of the Eastern Turks. Schulte corrected him, emphasizing that one would have to speak about the “patron of all Muslims.” Mayer-Mader understood. In a special report, he outlined his idea for a unit that was organized strictly along Islamic lines and would accommodate Muslims from all parts of the Soviet Union. He also pointed to the division’s effects on the wider Islamic world and discussed its employment in terms of Germany’s general policy on Islam. “Our enemies well know that the interests of Islam and Germany run parallel,” he claimed, describing Muslims and Germans as “the most natural allies.” Almost the entire Muslim world was colonized by the Soviets, British, and French. But even though many Muslims saw “the only hope for Islam in an alliance with Germany,” more had to be done. Apart from propaganda, practical measures were needed “to show the common man that Germany sees in Islam an equal friend and ally.” The most efficient measure was the formation of the division of Eastern Turkic Muslims, which would soon influence all Muslims of the Soviet Union. On 4 January 1944, Mayer-Mader, joined by Heinz Billig, who at that time still led the staff of the new division in Berlin, met Schulte again and established the future goals of the new division. The “short-term objective” was to function as a “task force against Bolshevism.” The “long-term objective,” the SS men decided, would be not only the “liberation of Turkestan” but also the broader “activation of the Muslims” (Aktivierung der Moslems) of the Soviet Union. It was this misconception, the notion that Islam was a bloc that could be “activated,” which dominated the views of German SS officers toward the end of the war.

This idea came even more to the fore in the summer of 1944, when the plans for the Eastern Muslim SS formation were reorganized. Reiner Olzscha wrote a whole series of reports on this matter, all roughly based on his general memorandum of 24 April 1944 about the involvement of the SS in Eastern Muslim affairs. In a report dated 7 June 1944, he discussed the Eastern formation in terms of a wider aim to mobilize Eastern Muslims against the Soviet Union. Stressing that the Muslims were the strongest non-Slavic and non-Christian minority of the Soviet Union, that their religion was a genuine bulwark against Moscow, and that their history of uprisings had proven their anti-Russian and anti-Bolshevist stance, Olzscha argued that the “struggle for freedom of the Mohammedan Turk people” provided an ideal basis for an alliance with Germany, an alliance that would be welcomed in wider parts of the Islamic world. Similar notes followed. In one of them, Olzscha argued that “hundreds of thousands of Turkic Muslims” would form the “strongest subversive minority of the Soviet Union” and should be “exploited” by the SS. In another, he described the new Eastern Muslim SS formation as a “platform for political fanaticization of the Eastern Turks in the fight against Bolshevist Russia.” Berger agreed. Not only the political-national motives but also the “Mohammedan worldview” of the Eastern Muslims were to be used “as an effective bulwark against Bolshevism,” he wrote to Himmler. In some further instructions Berger specified that Himmler’s order for the formation of the “Eastern Turkic Corps” aimed to concentrate all “Turkic Mohammedan anti-Bolshevist forces” for the purpose of “the inner fragmentation of the Soviet Union.” Berger’s plans for the Eastern Muslim Corps and the splintering of the Soviet Union, however, clashed with the realities of the war. In practice its units were not employed on Soviet territory. Nevertheless, officers at the SS Head Office were convinced by the plan. In a report to Berger, SS-Hauptsturmführer Ulrich, an official at the SS Head Office, urged the pursuit of the “desired ultimate goal,” which, he summarized, was the “revolutionalization of the anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia through Islam, as a detonator within the state.” “If this impact, through the 30 million Muslims in the Soviet Union, is to be effected, nevertheless, the deployment of the Eastern Turkic Corps cannot be relinquished.” The SS Head Office would follow these plans until the downfall of the Third Reich in 1945.

A vigorous promoter of Islamic mobilization in the last months of the war was the new commander of the Eastern Muslim formation, Harun al-Rashid, who, like Olzscha and Berger, described the corps as a “platform for the fanaticization” of the Muslims in the Soviet Union. He had “guaranteed” Olzscha a “loyal, combat-ready and soldierly valuable Mohammedan military force” (mohamedanische Waffenkraft). Underlining the importance of employing purely Muslim units, he also pleaded for stronger “Islamic-religious influence.” To guarantee this, he suggested, in June 1944, the deployment and training of the new corps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where they could join the Muslim SS units already there. In the Balkans it would be possible, he stressed, to direct “our people” into the mosques and to bring them under the influence of the Bosnian ‘ulama. Al-Rashid went as far as to suggest that, in case the Germans never conquered the Soviet Union, the Eastern Muslims could settle among the “very pro-German Mohammedan population of the Balkans.”

The efforts by the SS to mobilize Muslims were increasingly opposed by the Wehrmacht and the East Ministry. The Wehrmacht feared the disintegration of its Muslim legions. Indeed, Harun al-Rashid internally suggested transferring “all Mohammedan formations” to the Waffen-SS. More forceful opposition to the SS policy of Islamic mobilization of the Eastern Muslims came from Mende and officers of the East Ministry. When the SS began organizing its first Eastern Muslim units in late 1943, Mende’s protégé, the Turkic exile Veli Kajum, concerned about losing influence, protested that “the SS pursued ‘pan-Islamic’ aims.” The SS swiftly confronted Kajum. In February 1944 Mende himself stepped in, writing a lengthy report about the new SS line for Berger, who had by then also seized control of the political department of the East Ministry. Mende acknowledged the central role Islam played in the deployment of Muslim units in the Balkans: “The Western Muslim SS-Division of the Bosniaks can be successful under the unifying idea of Islam because the Bosniaks, who speak Croatian, distinguish themselves from the linguistically undifferentiated Croatian and Serbian environment only through Islam and the particular habits deriving from it. For them Islam is therefore the embodiment of their difference and the bond to the greater Islamic world.” However, he vehemently protested against expanding this policy to the East: “The situation among the Mohammedans in the Soviet Union is very different.” The Wehrmacht had divided Muslims into the four legions according to their ethnicity. “The unification of the Mohammedans of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Muslim SS Division requires a change from the hitherto political-propagandistic treatment,” Mende cautioned. Basing policy toward the Eastern Muslims on “the unifying power of Islam” would inevitably lead to a pan-Turanian movement that could not be controlled. Somewhat inconsistently, he claimed that, in any case, Islam played no decisive role in the East. Only 5 percent of Eastern Muslims were still attached to Islam, and only an additional 20 percent would possibly be receptive to a religious campaign. It was the “national question,” Mende asserted, that played the “decisive role.” Moreover, he warned that “the strong emphasis on unifying Islam” would make the smaller non-Muslim peoples of the Eastern territories, Georgians and Armenians, feel “subordinated,” which would make them turn to Moscow. Still, even Mende acknowledged that the SS policy would have “positive effects on Turkey and probably on the entire Mohammedan world.” He suggested a compromise. The volunteer formations should remain structured along ethnic lines, but this policy could be “complemented by a strong emphasis on the general principles of Islam and through the support of the fraternal bond between the greater Turkic-speaking units.” The SS could not have cared less. A few months later, in the summer of 1944, Mende turned again to Berger to repeat his concerns—once more without success. Finally, on 13 September 1944, representatives of the SS Head Office, including Olzscha and Ulrich, met to consult with Mende. Mende once more complained about the pan-policies of the SS. The SS remained firm. Mende’s position conflicted not only with that of the SS Head Office but also with that of his colleague Johannes Benzing, who supported the SS line. The interwar academic debates about the impact of Islam in the Soviet Union had turned into a conflict over policy making.

The SS policy toward the Muslims of the Eastern territories had a larger dimension. In the final months of the war, Muslim mobilization in the East became part of a full-scale pan-Islamic campaign launched by the SS. “Mobilization of Islam” was, indeed, the title of a memorandum written by the ambitious Emil Hermann in late February 1944. It suggested nothing less than an operation aimed at ensuring “that the whole Islamic world is set in motion” (dass der gesamte Islam in Bewegung gerät). Hermann outlined a gigantic pan-Islamic mobilization project targeting all countries within reach of the SS:

It is proposed to effect a Führer order via the Reichsführer-SS, which summons all capable Muslims within reach in Europe to come to a specific staging point. It must include both Mohammedan civil workers as well as O.T.-laborers [workers of the Organization Todt], prisoners of war, etc. The assemblage of the Mohammedans in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and Croatia would have to be carried out in cooperation with the Foreign Office and the foreign governments.… This campaign of orchestration would have to be preceded by a promotion exercise by the grand mufti via broadcast, press and pamphlet propaganda. The 13th Bosnian Waffen Mountain Division as well as the Eastern Muslim and Albanian [divisions], which are currently being deployed, would serve as a substantial propaganda instrument.… With regard to the Crimean Tatars, it is proposed to assemble the mullahs (Odessa or the Crimea itself) and to let the grand mufti speak to them in person. The Mohammedans of the countries of Spain, France, Italy, and Greece can be considered for the Arab Legion. There are only a few Mohammedans in Romania, so a separate formation would be unrealistic. With the Mohammedans of the Bulgarian region, a legion of Pomak Muslims could be employed. Circa 450,000 Pomak Muslims live in Bulgaria, who are suppressed by the Bulgarian government. During the deployment of new Mohammedan formations it must be considered that the officer posts are given to Mohammedans or Germans.

The plan never materialized, although, in the last year of the war, the SS made considerable (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to mobilize, or “activate” as Berger and other SS officers had put it, Muslims wherever possible—not just from the Soviet Union and the Baltic but also from Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. In the autumn of 1943 Himmler asked Berger to assess the issue of including Indian Muslims in Handžar. Berger answered that his “in-depth investigation” had shown that their integration into the Bosnian unit was not possible, as Indian Muslims would feel first Indian, not Muslim. He also advised against the employment of an Indian Muslim Formation (Indischer Moslemverband) on the Eastern Front, as he feared desertion to India. The plan was never pursued. Shortly afterward, Berger came up with another idea. In December 1943, after having consulted the mufti, he suggested to Himmler that they recruit Muslims from eastern Africa who were imprisoned in France: “These Mohammedans would like to fight against the English and Americans in Italy.” Berger expressed his wish to discuss the issue with Otto Abetz, the German ambassador to Paris. This never happened, either. Ultimately, SS recruitment of Arabs was largely unsuccessful, as it had been in the Wehrmacht. In France, under the auspices of the SD, the Brigade Nord-Africaine, a contingent of around 180 Algerians, which operated under the infamous Parisian Gestapo officer Henri Lafont and the Algerian nationalist Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as “SS Muhammad,” was created in early 1944. The unit fought the French resistance in central France but, as the military situation in France deteriorated, disintegrated within months. The plan to establish an “Arab-Islamic army” (Arabisch-Islamische Armee) for the Waffen-SS, as suggested by al-Husayni in the summer of 1944, proved to be entirely unrealistic. The SS reported that only 300 Arabs were available for the establishment of such an army, although Berger was still convinced that more Arab volunteers might be recruited in the future. Once again, the idea never materialized. Even plans for a smaller Arab infantry regiment proved unfeasible.

As the SS tried more and more desperately to enlist every Muslim within reach, eventually even concentration camps were screened for potential recruits. In the spring of 1944 Himmler ordered Berger to contact Oswald Pohl, head of the SS Economic and Administrative Head Office (SS-Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt) and in charge of the general organization of the concentration camps, to discuss the recruitment of Muslim prisoners for the Waffen-SS. Himmler’s personal administrative officer, Rudolf Brandt, even sent Berger a detailed list of Muslim concentration camp detainees, which had been compiled by Pohl’s bureaucrats. Titled “Account of the Inmates of the Islamic Faith” (Aufstellung über die Häftlinge islamitischen Glaubens), it listed all male and female Muslim prisoners in the camps Auschwitz (I–III), Buchenwald, Dachau, Flossenbürg, Groß-Rosen, Mauthausen, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Stutthof, and Bergen-Belsen. Altogether, 1,130 Muslim men and nineteen Muslim women were recorded. Most of them were from eastern and southeastern Europe and had presumably been interned as political prisoners. Still, the list was incomplete, as some groups, most notably Muslim prisoners from Arab countries, were not included. The SS Head Office reacted swiftly, prompting a bureaucratic process that lasted half a year and involved the SS Reich Security Head Office, the SS Economic and Administrative Head Office, and Himmler’s staff. Finally, on 16 November 1944, Olzscha reported to Berger that the SS Reich Security Head Office had, despite repeated requests, not yet determined whether some of the Muslims in the concentration camps were suitable for recruitment. Berger informed Himmler of these problems and suggested calling a halt to the process. A part of the Bosnian Muslims had, at the request of the Ustaša government, already been released in the meantime, and the remaining Muslims, who were interned “because of various offenses,” would surely not make good soldiers, the chief of the SS Head Office wrote. Himmler did not pursue the issue further.

Overall, a closer look at the non-German formations of both the Wehrmacht and the SS reveals that Muslims played a significant role within them. While the Wehrmacht was the first to begin recruiting Muslims and mobilized far more overall than Himmler, the SS became the strongest force in the military mobilization of Muslims near the end of the war. Both Wehrmacht and SS authorities considered the soldiers’ religious identity to be important when forming Muslim units. Leading German officials, most notably Hitler, Himmler, and Berger, repeatedly used religious rather than national or ethnic categories when speaking and writing about these formations. As in other cases of non-German mobilization by the Wehrmacht and SS, the recruitment of Muslims was launched primarily to balance the shortage of manpower. Yet, in the Muslims’ case, considerations of general war propaganda as well as notions of the Muslims’ trustworthiness and soldierly quality played an exceptional role. Consequently, the Wehrmacht and the SS recruited a vast number of Muslims and decided to provide them with special religious care and propaganda.

“Das Reich”








The SS-Verfügungstruppe, combat support force, or SS-VT was created in 1934 from the merger of various Nazi and right-wing paramilitary formations. Two regiments were formed, in northern Germany the SS-Standarte “Germania”, and in southern Germany SS-Standarte “Deutschland”.

In Berlin-Brandenburg they were incorporated into the SS-Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. SS-Verfügungstruppe was considered an armed wing of the General-SS and as a part of the Nazi party, not of the Wehrmacht.

In 1940, after the invasion of France, V-Division was given the name “Reich”, at the same time, “Reich” and other SS-VT units, were subordinated to the new Kommandoamt der Waffen-SS and from then on called the Waffen-SS.

It was not until after the start of the Russian campaign, “Operation Barbarossa”, that the Division got its final name, “Das Reich”.

“Das Reich” SS Panzer Grenadier Division at Kursk

Of the three SS divisions in the battle, Das Reich was sort of in the middle between the other two when it came to the transition process to a full panzer division.

Das Reich 2nd SS Panzer Regiment: Like with LAH, Das Reich’s 1st Battalion was back in Germany undergoing training in the new Panther tanks. When it left in the late spring of 1943, it left all of its tanks with the regiment, thus allowing the 2nd Battalion to be at full strength. The 2nd Battalion was organized into four companies, each with four platoons. However, there were too many tanks for the 2nd Battalion to contain in its organization so an unusual procedure was implemented to alleviate this overage of tanks. The Das Reich SS Motorized Anti-Tank Battalion was stripped of all of its Marders and the command personnel and the organization were used to create a temporary panzer battalion for the leftover tanks. The 2nd Battalion had about 18 Pz IVF/2, 24 Pz IIIJ, and 5 command tanks operational at the time of the battle. The Heavy Tank Company started the day with one operational Tiger tank but during the morning a second Tiger tank returned from the field repair shops so there were two of them when battle was joined. Of these one was knocked out in the day’s combat (it was hit 83 times!).

Das Reich 2nd SS Panzer Jager Battalion: This was the proper name of the division’s motorized anti-tank battalion. The Marder II companies that were part of the battalion were parceled out to other units in the division. One company went to the assault gun battalion where it became the 4th Company in that unit. The other two went to the panzer grenadier regiments, one to each, to become part of their 14th Companies. The battalion, as a tank unit, was organized into three companies of three platoons each. This battalion was equipped with captured T-34c tanks. It is not clear whether there were two companies of T-34’s and one company of Pz IIIJ’s or one company of T-34’s and two companies of Pz IIIJ’s. Different sources list both types. The 2nd Panzer Jager Battalion had about 15 T-34c, 10 Pz IIIJ, and 2 command tanks at the time of the battle.

Das Reich SS Artillery Regiment: The artillery regiment had four battalions. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were standard 105mm howitzer battalions of two batteries each. The 4th Battalion was a mixed battalion of two batteries of 150mm howitzers and one battery of 105mm guns. The regiment used six gun batteries instead of the usual four gun batteries of other divisions, thus every two batteries. The 3rd Battalion was the self-propelled battalion with three 105mm batteries. The self-propelled artillery pieces were actually experimental ones utilizing captured French tank chassis. These vehicles were hand-me-downs from the regular Army panzer divisions which had received their Wespe and Hummel vehicles.

Last Actions

Division Das Reich had a combat strength of 1498 men and 11 Panzers on 7th April, on 10th it reported 15 Panthers, 11 Panzer IVs, 4 Jagdpanzers IVs, 1 Jagdpanther and 8 Flakpanzer IVs (probably both operational and under repair). Other two divisions that formed the II.SS-Pz.Korps: -3.SS-Pz.Div. (1004 men and 6 Panzers) -6.Pz.Div. (1235 men and 8 Panzers) Gumpoldskirchen and Baden were captured (by Russians) on 4th April. Hstuf. Franz-Josef Dreike (Kdr.SS-Flak.Abt.2) and Stubaf. Hans Hauser (KG Hauser) received KCs for their actions at Laaer Berg and Münchendorf.

The last combat actions of the Division as a whole were around the 13th April 1945 near to the Floridsdorfer Bridge in Vienna.


One of the last Pzkw. IV tanks of Panzerdivision “Das Reich” guards the Vienna side of the Floridsdorfer Bridge.


To buy time for the scattered remnants of the 2nd SS Panzer Division to escape north of the Danube, a small rearguard was left to protect the south end of the bridge and engage any Russian forces attempting to cross the Danube. Lt. Arno Giessen was in command, with 97 confirmed tank kills he was considered the best man for the job. With his small force, his prospects for slowing the Russian Juggernaut seemed small.

Superb leadership overcame superior numbers once again. Each time a Russian tank came into view the Germans would zero in on it and destroy it before the Russian infantry could intervene. When his Panther ran out of fuel, Lt. Giessen went stalking Russian tanks on foot with Panzerfausts. Before dawn on the 13th of April Lt. Giessen added 14 kills to his record. Lt. Giessen’s actions allowed the majority of the division to escape across the Danube. He surveyed his destroyed tanks as his remaining men crossed the bridge. Lt. Giessen crossed the bridge and engineers sent it tumbling into the Danube. Lt. Giessen was the last man out.

By early May 1945 the Division had ceased to exist as a cohesive unit, the Der Fuehrer Pz. Gren. Regt were sent to Prague, the Deutschland Pz. Gren. Regt were fighting in Austria and the Div HQ and other Div units including the Panzer Regt were in action near Dresden.




Soviet Armor in Berlin 1945

The so-called “Battle of Berlin” was the last major land battle in the European theater during World War II. It was also more of a campaign to occupy central and eastern Germany than a fight over or inside the poorly defended, sprawling, smoldering wreck of the German metropolis. On one side was the assembled might of the Red Army, driving toward ultimate victory against the once-feared but now only hated and despised Wehrmacht. The defenders arrayed around the capital were made up of broken Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS units. Inside the city Hitler and his commanders assembled about 45,000 Wehrmacht and foreign Waffen SS: Baltic, French, Dutch and other fascist volunteers, fanatics, and opportunists of the “New Order” with no place left to run. They were joined in the frontline by raw boys from the city’s Hitlerjugend, some as young as 12, each armed with a singleshot anti-tank weapon. Another 40,000 Volkssturm were herded to the line, mainly old men of the home guard who fought for the Kaiser in the last war, or invalided soldiers dragged back into the new one for Hitler. Nazi Party officials and other fanatics formed roving death squads to round up any suspected deserter. Any man or boy caught in mufti or behind the lines who could not explain his presence was treated without mercy and summarily hanged for treason: Berlin’s lampposts were adorned with corpses. The approaching Soviet formations had massive superiority in everything, in most cases by a ratio of 10:1 or greater: more air power, artillery, and armor and better trained and more experienced troops.

As the marshals and generals of the Red Army prepared to encircle Berlin, which they and their men called “berlog” or “beast,” the field marshals and generals of the Wehrmacht sank into the worst extremes and criminal excesses of the “catastrophic nationalism” that long engulfed their Führer and themselves. No one in the High Command contradicted Hitler’s final rants or sheer military fantasies about phantom relief armies driving on the city, or his promises of war-winning Wunderwaffen soon-to-arrive and change the course of the war in Germany’s favor. They knew all that to be false, the ravings of a delusional madman who had conquered all of Europe then lost it again inside six years. The men in feldgrau uniforms with red stripes running down their trouser legs instead allowed the protracted and wanton total destruction of Germany, the decimation of its citizens and their own men. Some senior officers ran for cover in the end. Others made vulgar suicide plans; a few carried these out. Most merely waited with fatalistic stoicism for the end of their world and lives, superficially dutiful at their posts but as morally insensible at the end of Hitler’s serial wars of genocidal aggression as they were at the start.

The Red Army paid a bloody price for the honor of delivering Hitler’s capital to Stalin, who ordered the attack accelerated when he met with his Front commanders on April 3. The reason for the shift in gear was almost certainly the Kremlin master’s concern over the rapid progress being made by the Western Allies, as resistance collapsed into small unit action and a few holdout pockets in western Germany. Two huge Fronts launched the final attack on “berlog” on April 16. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front attacked from the south out of Silesia with over half a million men. Zhukov’s massive 1st Belorussian Front struck westward from the Neisse and Oder with over 900,000 men and thousands of tanks and attack aircraft. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front at 480,000 men attacked along the Baltic coast starting on April 18. Rokossovsky tore across Brandenburg and smashed right through immobile 3rd Panzerarmee, which was trying to flee west to surrender to the Anglo-Americans but lacked transport even for that. The three Fronts that closed the ring around Berlin brought to the fight over 6,200 tanks, 7,500 combat aircraft, and 41,000 artillery tubes. Together, they comprised 171 divisions and 21 more mobile corps. Attacking on all sides of the city simultaneously, these vast armies overwhelmed and crushed the last defenders in the outer ring around Berlin. Tactics were crude, frontal, and blunt, especially in Zhukov’s opening assault on the Seelow Heights. Heavy Soviet casualties resulted as the attack initially failed against a layered and effective German defense. The main force defending the city was fragments of Army Group Center—not the original force that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but a renamed hodgepodge of units cobbled together and led in futile resistance by a fanatic Nazi. General Ferdinand Schörner was one of Hitler’s’ vaunted “men of will.” He tried to hold the line of the River Neisse, but failed against unstoppable brute force and more skilled Soviet commanders and troops. German 9th Army also fought hard to pull itself westward from the Oder, inflicting heavy casualties on Konev’s lead units. The two main Soviet thrusts, by Konev and Zhukov, linked on April 24 just south of Berlin. Soviet troops entered the outer suburbs two days later.

Army Group Vistula totally collapsed overnight on April 28–29, and the fight for Berlin was effectively over. It had been waged and won outside the city. A few more days of fighting remained as hundreds of thousands of krasnoarmeets moved through broken urban neighborhoods and the rubble of earlier Allied bombing to blast away the last resistance from a few thousand fanatics. Through it all Hitler brooded in his “leader bunker” beneath the rubble, under the Reich Chancellery. In the end even he stopped ordering mirage armies to counterattack this street or district, or to break out from some Baltic envelopment and fight through to Berlin. He instead ordered total demolition of the city and of Germany, of all its infrastructure and facilities, just as he had ordered Warsaw destroyed in 1944. The German nation, Hitler pronounced without a shred of self-awareness or irony, had proven “unworthy” of his greatness and failed the test of his social-Darwinist view of war and history. At last, a Führer order was countermanded: his court architect and minister for armaments and munitions, Albert Speer, finally disobeyed the man he had followed for over a decade into utter moral and physical ruin. Speer secretly called and circulated to stop the wanton destruction of the means of survival for any German who lived past the end of the war. Other top Nazis deserted their Führer in different ways, with several seeking to contact the Western Allies in vain hopes of negotiating a truce. Hitler condemned them all, married his mistress, then killed himself on April 30. That same day Soviet soldiers tore down the Swastika flag from the Reichstag roof and raised their own in its place. Two days later the last resistance inside Berlin ended. The tiny garrison that remained made an offer of surrender. It was accepted, and a formal ceasefire went into effect at 3:00 P.M. Berlin time. The garrison survivors and hundreds of thousands more Germans taken captive outside the city were marched to the east, most into years of captivity and forced labor.

The SS and the Secret Weapons



Himmler visits the Peenemünde rocket research site, June 1943. Behind him is SS-Sturmbannfuhrer (SS-Major) Wernher von Braun in his SS uniform.

In summer 1943 it looked as if the SS would succeed after all in moving beyond the hiring-out of prisoners and a modest amount of production to becoming involved in a promising major armaments project, namely, in the development and production of the so-called A4, the first ballistic missile.

Militarily, the A4 with its conventional warhead of 1,000 kilograms of explosives, was of relatively little value; the much cheaper and technically less advanced Luftwaffe competitor, the flying bomb, Fi 103, could carry almost the same amount of explosives. However, from a technical point of view neither the Fi 103 nor the A4 represented a reply to the Allied bomber fleets, which in a single attack could drop thousands of tons of explosives with increasing accuracy on their planned targets. It was presumably Himmler’s penchant for exotic, utopian-type projects that made him so enthusiastic about the Army’s idea for a rocket. Moreover, he was probably also tempted by the thought that, with the help of prisoner labour, he would at last be able to get hold of a major armaments project.

Himmler’s interest was aroused after Hitler had given his basic approval to the A4 rocket programme in November 1942. On 11 December he attended a rocket trial launch at the Peenemünde testing ground; he was not put off by the fact that the trial ended with the rocket exploding four seconds after take-off. On the contrary, he supported the head of the project’s attempt to gain an audience with Hitler, though without success. In March 1943 he had the military commander at Peenemünde dismissed. There were doubts about his reliability because of his alleged links to the Catholic Church, and vague accusations were made, which later turned out to be without foundation. Himmler installed a successor who could be relied upon to toe the line. This example shows how he was prepared to use his police powers ruthlessly when bent on gaining an advantage. On 28 June Himmler was received at Peenemünde by Wernher von Braun wearing the uniform of an SS-Hauptsturmführer. The visit went off satisfactorily: Himmler appointed von Braun Sturmbannführer and backdated the promotion to the day of his visit.

In the meantime the A4 special committee of the Peenemünde test facilities responsible for rocket production had decided to request KZ inmates from the SS for the envisaged manufacture of the rockets, and this was approved in June.250 However, when a British air raid on Peenemünde in August 1943 caused some damage, Himmler suggested to Hitler that rocket production should be placed entirely in his hands. The A4 rocket was to be produced underground with the aid of KZ prisoners— the SS had already agreed to a request from the A4 Armaments special committee—and the development programme could be carried out at a testing ground of the Waffen-SS in Poland. Hitler approved this proposal and Himmler assigned the responsibility to Hans Kammler, the head of Department C (Buildings) in the Business and Administration Main Office. A cave system near Nordhausen in Thuringia was selected as the production site, the so-called Mittelwerk, where in autumn 1943 an autonomous concentration camp was established named Mittelbau. On 20 August Speer and his deputy Karl-Otto Saur met the recently appointed Interior Minister, Himmler, to discuss the details. The following day Himmler summed up the main result of the meeting in a note to Speer: ‘I, as Reichsführer-SS, […] am taking over responsibility for the production of the A4 equipment.’

This statement was, however, a little premature, for while Hitler had ordered that Himmler should support Speer with this work, he by no means wished to give him responsibility for the production process. Himmler, however, did not allow himself to be put off: in March 1944 von Braun and two of his leading colleagues were arrested and imprisoned for several weeks. They were accused of making comments in which, among other things, they had criticized the conduct of the war and emphasized the importance of civil space exploration. Braun’s army superior managed, however, to get the technical director freed, albeit only on a temporary basis. According to von Braun, Himmler’s aim in doing this was to gain control of the development work on the rocket, though he was to prove unsuccessful. In spring 1944, however, Himmler’s man Kammler became heavily involved in the transfer of German aircraft production underground; Mittelwerk became the model for this. On 4 March 1944 Göring appointed Kammler his ‘Representative for Special Building Work’, whereupon, supported by the SS and with the aid of KZ prisoners, he set about transferring aircraft production underground in mines, tunnels, and so forth. This meant that the SS had in fact at last managed to get a foothold in Luftwaffe armaments production, but at a time when German planes could no longer compete with those of the Allies.

In the following months of Himmler’s appointment as commander of the Reserve Army, also saw to it that Wehrmacht armaments were merged on the level of personnel and organization with the SS. Thus the A4 rocket project seemed finally to have fallen into his hands. On 6 August 1944 he gave Kammler, the Head of department C in the Business and Administration Main Office, complete authority to ensure the ‘most rapid’ deployment of the A4.38 Kammler did as he was told, and on 6 September the first raid on London using the A4 (or V2, as it was also called) took place. In all more than 3,000 V2s were to be launched, more than half of which landed on the British capital.

Himmler claimed to be convinced that the V rockets would bring about a turn in the war. At the end of July he had declared in a speech to the officer corps of a new grenadier division: ‘I know that we still have crises and shortages to get through. We should not forget, however that V1 and the V2, V3, and V4 to come are not a bluff [ . . . ].’ He had, he said, news from London according to which the constant bombardment of the city in the previous weeks with V1s (the ‘doodlebug’ flying-bombs developed by the Luftwaffe) had already led to 120,000 deaths, which ‘absolutely matches the numbers of V1s we have sent over and for which I have precise figures. For we know more or less what effect they have and thus we can work out ourselves the numbers of dead.’ It remains Himmler’s secret how he could claim to know the damage done by a weapon whose impact on southern England could not be verified by the German side. At any rate, the figures he gave were almost fifty times larger than the actual number of victims.

The drive with which Himmler in his new capacity attempted to expand his power in all directions did, however, meet with resistance. When, on 23 August 1944, Goebbels suggested to Hitler that, as part of the measures to promote total war, Himmler should be put in charge of all the district headquarters of the Wehrmacht, Hitler’s reaction was negative: ‘But the Führer fears that Himmler is so overloaded with work that it will get too much for him and the same tragedy will befall him as befell Göring. He too had so many offices that he lost track of them.’ Himmler’s work would have to be ‘concentrated’. As Goebbels explained further, Himmler had ‘tried once more to take charge of the entire A4 programme, which the Führer had categorically rejected. To do this Himmler would have had to build up a new apparatus without being in a position to dismantle the existing apparatus. So nothing is going to change here.’

In the end, in January 1945 Himmler was forced to give up not only the A4 programme but also armaments as a whole, having been put in charge of them in the meantime as commander of the Reserve Army. Thus the miracle weapon, the capabilities of which had been completely overestimated, had been placed once and for all beyond his grasp.

12th SS Panzer Division in the Ardennes



Subject: German soldiers riding in tank during the "Battle of the Bulge" Belgium 1944. Photographer- U.S. Army Public Domain Merlin-1141002



SS Colonel Hugo Kraas was born in Witten/the Ruhr in 1911, the eldest of seven sons. He studied to be a teacher but had to drop out and go to work when his father died. He joined the Brownshirts in 1934 and transferred to the army in 1935. Later that year, he joined the Waffen-SS and began officer training at the SS Junker School at Brunswick. He graduated and was commissioned in 1938, and was assigned to the Leibstandarte. He advanced rapidly and fought in all of the campaigns of the LAH, serving as a platoon leader in the 14th Antitank Company (Panzerjaegerkompanie) (1938-39), a platoon leader in the 15th Motorcycle Company (Kradschuetzenkompanie) (1939-40), a company commander in the 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion (1940-41), acting commander of the 1st SS Recon (1941-42), commander of the I/2nd SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment (1942-43), and commander of the 2nd SS Panzer Regiment. He assumed command of the 12th SS Panzer Division on November 15, 1944, and led it for the rest of the war, fighting in the Ardennes, Hungary, and Austria. He surrendered to the Americans and was released from the POW camps in 1948. He was promoted rapidly: 1st lieutenant (1939), captain (1940), major (1942), lieutenant colonel (1943), colonel (1944), Oberfuehrer (January 30, 1945), and major general (Brigadefuehrer) (April 20, 1945). He died in Schleswig an Herzversagen on February 20, 1980. His younger brother, Boris Kraas, was an SS major and commander of the 3rd SS Tank Destroyer Battalion “Totenkopf.” He was mortally wounded in Hungary on February 13, 1945.

Major General Walter M. Robertson was in charge of both the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions, while Major General Leonard T. Gerow, the commander of the V Corps sorted out logistical problems, reinforcements, and organized the defense of Elsenborn Ridge. He also had to guard against the possibility that Colonel Peiper (who was somewhere beyond his right flank) would turn north. (One of Peiper’s reconnaissance companies did push to within 600 yards of the 2nd Division’s Command Post before it was driven off by an infantry battalion.)

Colonel Wilhelm Viebig’s 277th Volksgrenadier Division had been given the task of capturing the twin towns, but its mission exceeded its strength. Strangely enough, Sepp Dietrich, the least capable of the senior German commanders, realized this even before the battle began. He appealed to Hitler to let him lead the advance with his armor. The Fuehrer overruled his former bodyguard and insisted that the infantry spearhead the attack. This decision not only led to heavy losses in the inexperienced people’s grenadier units but also resulted in unnecessary traffic congestion and massive traffic jams.

It is interesting to speculate what might have happened had Dietrich gotten his way. The Panthers and SS panzer grenadiers would almost certainly have gained more ground than the inexperienced infantry and quite possibly would have captured the vital Elsenborn Ridge before the Americans manned it. Had they done so, the battle would have developed much differently than it did, and the northern shoulder of the German offensive might not have been blocked. Without the infantry clogging the roads with their horse-drawn vehicles, the Germans might have been able to get their fuel trucks to their panzers, 6th Panzer Army’s advance might not have stalled out, and Army Group B’s offensive might not have been channelized so quickly, despite Eisenhower’s incredibly rapid reaction. From there, anything is possible, but history is full of interesting “might have beens.”

Robertson, the soft-spoken, highly competent commander of the U. S. 2nd Infantry Division, executed a brilliant retrograde, leap-frogging his battalions back toward the twin towns of Rocherath and Krinkelt, in spite of attacks from the 277th and 12th Volksgrenadier Divisions. Losses on both sides were severe, and a great many American vehicles became stuck in the mud and had to be abandoned. The U. S. 394th Infantry Regiment was smashed by the 12th Volksgrenadier, and a battalion of the 38th Infantry Regiment was “practically annihilated” by the 277th VG.

General Robertson nevertheless pulled it off, partially because the inexperienced men of the U. S. 99th Infantry Division fought much better than anyone expected. Dietrich, for example, threw the veteran 12th Volksgrenadier against it near Losheimergraben, an important road junction on the southern flank of the V Corps line. The 12th was considered the best infantry division in the 6th Panzer Army, and it was well led by Major General Gerhard Engel, Hitler’s former adjutant, but it could only gain a quarter of a mile against the stubborn 99th, which turned it back in heavy, close-quarter fighting.

Early in the afternoon, because of the heavy casualties in his assault divisions, Dietrich decided to commit armor in the form of SS Colonel Hugo Kraas’s 12th SS Panzer Division against Robertson’s northern flank, although a breakthrough had not yet been achieved. Most of the tanks of the SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth” were promptly bogged down in the mud, but the young panzer grenadiers managed to push the Americans back, and the entire V Corps position was in danger when night fell. During the night of December 17-18, tanks from the 12th SS (now extricated from the mud) broke through the U. S. line and pushed into Krinkelt, only to be expelled by a hasty counterattack. The following morning, Tigers from the 12th SS pushed into Rocherath, only to be repulsed by artillery fire from Elsenborn Ridge, by bazooka fire and men hurling antitank mines, and by Americans who poured gasoline on the tanks and then set them on fire. The 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth” lost 67 of its 136 tanks in the first three days of the battles for Krinkelt and Rocherath. The fighting was fierce and, because the American soldiers had heard that the SS were shooting captives, few prisoners were taken by either side.

American casualties were also heavy. The U. S. 393rd Infantry Regiment of the 99th Infantry Division, for example, lost 1,357 men, the 394th Infantry Regiment lost 1,198 men, and the 395th Infantry Regiment lost 422 men. The Table of Organization and Equipment (TOE) strength of a U. S. infantry regiment was 3,163 men. The 1st Battalion of the 393rd was especially hard hit and lost 72 percent of its men.

By nightfall on December 18, however, General Robertson had completed his complicated maneuver, and Army Group B had ordered Dietrich to abandon his tank attacks on the twin towns. During the night of December 18, despite the protests of General Priess, he swung the Hitler Youth Division to the south, in an attempt to reach the Malmedy road. This maneuver also failed because the U. S. 1st Infantry Division had arrived by now and blocked this route.

With the 12th SS Division withdrawn from his front, Robertson completed the withdrawal to Elsenborn Ridge on December 19 with few difficulties. Meanwhile, Hodges had again reinforced Gerow, this time with the veteran U. S. 9th Infantry Division, one of the best units in the American army. Losses had been high but, with the 1st, 2nd, 9th, and 99th Infantry Divisions on and around Elsenborn Ridge, the northern shoulder of the front was secure.

By December 19, Courtney Hodges’s 1st U. S. Army had 208,000 men and hundreds of tanks and guns moving south, into the Ardennes. 1 On the northern wing of the 5th Panzer Army, LVIII Panzer Corps had made fairly good progress, but was now being slowed by the U. S. 3rd Armored Division. In the meantime, Dietrich’s 6th Army tried to expand its road net by pushing Gerow’s U. S. V Corps off Elsenborn Ridge. They were butting their heads against a stone wall. The Germans advanced through the deep draws leading to the ridge in an effort to dislodge the deeply entrenched U. S. 99th Infantry Division. They were met by a huge concentration of artillery fire. The American artillery battalions fired 10,000 rounds on December 21 alone. When the Germans retreated, they left behind 47 tanks and tank destroyers.

Meanwhile, the veteran U. S. 9th Infantry Division reinforced Elsenborn Ridge.

On December 21 and 22, the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth” rejoined the struggle for the ridge. It lost 44 tanks and an estimated 1,200 men in attacks against the U. S. 1st Infantry Division near the village of Butgenbach while, to the south, Otto Skorzeny’s 150th Panzer Brigade made one last effort to take Malmedy on the 21st. It was unsuccessful. Skorzeny had 3,500 men and was facing the U. S. 30th Infantry Division, which had four infantry battalions, supported by artillery, tank destroyer, and combat engineer battalions, and was well dug in.


With the destruction, the spearheads of the 2nd Panzer Division, Hitler’s last great offensive in the west, had failed. The Fuehrer, as usual, refused to recognize this fact; he ordered that Bastogne be captured at all costs. On December 27, the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade arrived in the Bastogne sector, having been delayed by fighter-bombers and fuel shortages. It was ordered to launch an immediate attack–without benefit of reconnaissance. Naturally, the attack failed. (There are cases in history in which attacks succeeded without reconnaissance but not many of them.)

Hitler reacted as he normally did–he changed leadership, although this time he did not fire anybody. He placed Lieutenant General Karl Decker’s XXXIX Panzer Corps, which was just up from the Eastern Front, in charge of the siege, and ordered him to take the town, no matter what.

Decker tried. On December 28, in a terrible snow storm, he attacked with the 26th Volksgrenadier Division, the Fuehrer Begleit Brigade, the 115th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (of the 15th Panzer Grenadier Division), and the 901st Panzer Grenadier Regiment from the Panzer Lehr. Patton (who now controlled the VIII Corps) reinforced the garrison with the U. S. 6th Armored Division, CCA of the U. S. 9th Armored Division, and the U. S. 35th Infantry Division (Major General Paul W. Baade). Before the Siege of Bastogne was over, the 9th and 12th SS Panzer and the 340th Volksgrenadier Divisions also joined the fighting. On the other side, Patton committed the 11th Armored and 87th Infantry Divisions to the battle.


On January 7, 1945, the critical Baraque-de-Fraiture crossroads (Parker’s Crossroads) was lost, and the German generals were acutely concerned that the U. S. 1st and 3rd Armies might soon link up and sever the bulge near its base, trapping much of the 5th Panzer and 6th Panzer Armies. Even Hitler recognized the danger. On January 8, he gave Model a rare authorization to withdraw. The next day, he tacitly admitted defeat by ordering Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army out of the Ardennes. He also issued an order to withdraw the II SS Panzer Corps (including the 1st SS, 2nd SS, 9th SS, and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, plus the two Fuehrer brigades and two Werfer brigades) to the rear of Army Group G for rehabilitation. For them, the Battle of the Bulge was over. Most of the withdrawing divisions were in very bad condition. The 9th SS Panzer had only six infantry battalions left and they had an average of only 160 men each. Only 30 of its tanks and assault guns had survived the battle. The 12th SS was in even worse shape: it had 26 tanks and assault guns left and only 120 men in its average panzer grenadier battalion.


Waffen-SS “Wiking” Division at Korsun



Wiking Waffen SS Division breaks out Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket.



Following Soviet attacks in the middle of December out of their bridgeheads south of Krementschug and at Tscherkassy, whereby the city of Tscherkassy also fell, they launched a large-scale offensive from out of the Kiev area during the last few days of December. They drove a wedge 300 kilometers wide between Heeresgruppe Süd and Heeresgruppe Mitte and advanced far to the west. By the middle of January 1944, Soviet forces that had pivoted south had reached a line running Berditschew-Bjelaja Zerkow.

The formations of the 2nd Ukrainian front, which were attacking from the east out of the Krementschug area, reached the city of Kirowograd on 9 January 1944, 100 kilometers south of Tscherkassy. On 28 January 1944, the lead Soviet spearheads of the gigantic pincers movement-heading from Bjelaja Zerkow in the north and from Kirowograd in the south-established contact at Swenigorodka, some 25 kilometers southwest of Tscherkassy on 28 January 1944. The divisions of the XI. Armee-Korps and the XXXXII. Armee- Korps, including the “Wiking” Division, were encircled.


In the 20 days that followed in the Tscherkassy Pocket, the 10 divisions proved their steadfastness in the face of deceptive enemy propaganda, proved their bravery against the suffocating superiority by the seven Soviet field armies participating in the encirclement and proved the exemplary leadership of the responsible officers.

For “Vikings” of long standing in the division, the names of the local villages-names such Taraschta, Boguslaw and Smela-conjured up memories of hard fighting two years previously. Back then it had also been a matter of standing fast in the face of powerful blows and pressure from enemy formations coming from the Tscherkassy area. The situation was the same; the roles had been reversed. The area of the German forces encircled to the west of the city was growing ever smaller. The relief efforts from the outside, those of the XXXXVII. Panzer-Korps and the III. Panzer-Korps, failed.

After being encircled for 10 days, the pocket was reduced in half from its original 60 kilometer diameter after the Dnjepr line was finally evacuated on 8 February. In addition to the weather conditions, the shallowness of the pocket made movements increasingly difficult. The enemy’s pressure grew accordingly.

Starting on 7 February, all of the measures taken in the pocket were conducted with an eye towards the intended breakout effort, which was to be accompanied by a relief effort from the outside.

Orders arrived at the command post of the tank battalion in Waljawskije at 0830 hours on 9 February to move all of its tanks and assault guns to Korsun. The tracked vehicles were there by 1400 hours; the wheeled vehicles arrived in the evening.

On the next day, feverish efforts were undertaken to prepare the vehicles operationally. In order to consolidate all excess personnel, all of the tank crews that no longer had any tanks were formed into an infantry company of four platoons, along with truck drivers and other men of the trains. The acting commander of the ad hoc unit was SS-Hauptsturmführer Wittmann.

The “infantry” company had a combat strength of four officers and 220 enlisted personnel. It was employed on 11 February against enemy forces at the Korsun train station. Each of the platoons had three machine guns above and beyond the small arms and hand grenades it had received. During the night of 11/12 February, the company closed a gap at Arbusino, about 1 kilometer east of Korsun. At the same time, it established contact with an Army unit.

Until the evening of 13 February, the “infantry” company of the battalion conducted defensive operations and launched immediate counterattacks against attacking company-sized enemy forces. The unit helped prevent the forward elements form being cut off. While that was happening, the operational tanks were sent to Jablonowka, about 4 kilometers west of Korsun, under the command of SS-Untersturmführer Schumacher.

The battle staff of the battalion had already been summoned to the command post of the XXXXII. Armee-Korps in Jablonowka the previous day.

An impressive indicator of the extraordinary difficulties was noted by von Manstein in his memoirs, when he described the effect of the dominant weather conditions of the time. For the forces in Tscherkassy, that was in addition to the difficulties of moving in the reduced pocket, which was also subjected to the strong pressure being exerted by the enemy. Von Manstein:

I attempted to get to the front lines of the assault groups on two occasions. I got hopelessly stuck each time in the snow or the mud. The weather changed daily between snowstorms and thaws.

In order to establish good jumping-off positions for breaking through the Soviet encirclement, the senior commander in the pocket, the Commanding General of the XI. Armee-Korps, General der Infanterie Stemmermann, attempted to push the southwestern tip of the pocket further in the direction of Schanderowka, since it was already pointing in that direction. From there, the lead elements of the assault detachments of the breakout forces would only have another 13 kilometers to advance to link up with the lead elements of the III. Panzer-Korps. The pressure to get to Schanderowka and the movements of the forces involved were expedited, since it could not be ruled out that the lead elements of the relief forces might be pushed back to the southwest themselves by the intensifying Soviet attacks.

During the night of 11-12 February, the tank battalion moved forward into the area around the Sawdski brickworks and then reached Nowo Buda, about 3 kilometers south of Schanderowka, around 0900 hours that morning. It established contact there with the local-area commander, Major Brese.

The lingering thaw made movements across the terrain, which could be observed by the enemy, very difficult. An assault gun was knocked out. The tanks screened towards the northwest from the Nowo Buda-Schanderowka road. They were refueled with captured fuel.

Enemy tanks that had penetrated through the German lines in the Nowo- Buda area lent an additional air of uncertainty. The enemy was also exerting pressure from the northwest.

On 13 February, SS-Untersturmführer Schumacher ejected the Soviets from the eastern portion of Nowo-Buda with two tanks. The enemy had succeeded in making several small penetrations there with two battalions.

On 14 February, the Soviets launched another attack, this time with 11 tanks. Schumacher advanced with two tanks into the southern portion of the village, which had been reoccupied by the enemy. One of his tanks was hit by an antitank gun and damaged.

Schumacher then proceeded to knock out seven enemy tanks with his own tank. He expended all of his armor-piercing rounds; with his remaining high-explosive rounds, he forced the crews of three more tanks to abandon their vehicles. When a second tank came to the aid of Schumacher, the three abandoned tanks were set ablaze. Then a fourth one was set alight, when it attempted to approach Schumacher from the rear.

On the same day, however, four friendly tanks, including the one of SS-Oberscharführer Fiebelkorn, were knocked out while screening. Another battle group under the command of SS-Oberscharführer Schweiss knocked out four enemy tanks in the Komarowka area, 3 kilometers west of Nowo-Buda.

Despite taking extraordinary losses, the Soviets continued their heavy attacks on Nowo-Buda the next day. At 1545 hours, they once again assaulted the southern portion of the village. Once again, Schumacher made a name for himself by knocking out two enemy tanks with his Panzer III.

The tanker “infantry” company of SS-Hauptsturmführer Wittmann, which had been defending in the area around Arbusino, pulled back as ordered during the night of 13-14 February to positions on the high ground west of Korsun. The pursuing enemy was pushed back in some areas by means of immediate counterattacks. At 2200 hours, Wittmann’s men pulled back again and reached Schanderowka on 15 February, in accordance with their orders.

On 16 February, the enemy renewed his attacks on Nowo-Buda with reinforced forces. The enemy attacks led to the loss of the southern portion of the village at first light. The 1st Battalion of the “Germania” Regiment, which was reinforced with two tanks, held its positions, however.

At 1500 hours, the liaison officer of the “Germania” Regiment brought the tank battalion the order to break out. It stated that the battalion was to disengage from the enemy at 1900 hours and move to Schanderowka. It would receive further orders from the division there.

After the battalion commander returned from the division headquarters- he had gone to Schanderowka at 1700 hours with his adjutant-he issued the following order:

The tank battalion immediately moves to the western portion of Schanderowka after the return of the battle group from Nowo-Buda and immediately prepares to break out from there.

All armored elements move out at 1920 hours, organized as follows: 1 Command Tank; 2 Panzer IV’s; 4 Panzer III’s; 6 assault guns; the wheeled elements immediately follow the armored elements.

The movements of the troop elements into the designated areas were made very difficult by the prevailing bad weather conditions, but they were made decisively difficult by the fact that some 50,000 encircled men had been pressed into an area roughly 7×8 kilometers.

At 2100 hours, the battalion arrived at the western edge of Schanderowka. The first tank in the march order, the command tank, broke through the bridge that led over the creek there. It took hours before the bridge was repaired enough that the individual tanks could cross, assisted by an 18-ton prime mover. The last tank crossed the bridge at 0145 hours on 17 February.

The tanker “infantry” company was given the mission of screening the flanks of the breakthrough group west of the village.

Half an hour remained after the successful occupation of the staging area and the scheduled start of the attack. Everyone was acutely aware of what was at stake. The hope that relief forces on the outside would move towards the breakout point helped encourage the soldiers. On that 13 February, the chief of staff of the 8. Armee, General Speidel, radioed the pocket commander, General Stemmermann: “Breith with forward-most elements at Lißjanka. Vormann advancing from the bridgehead at Jerki in the direction of Swenigorodka. What is the situation there? Best wishes for success!”

Two days before the planned breakout, on 15 February, the 8. Armee sent the following message: “Capabilities of the III. Panzer-Korps restricted. Gruppe Stemmermann must break through at Dshurshenzy and reach Hill 239 with its own forces. Establish contact there with the III. Panzer-Korps.”

At 1500 hours on 16 February, 11 hours before the start of the attack, von Manstein radioed Stemmermann: “Watch word: Freedom. Objective: Lißjanka.”

Approximately 13 kilometers separated the breakout group and the hills at Dshurshenzy, where the lead elements of the III. Panzer-Korps awaited it. The daily logs of the battalion portrayed the breakout attempt thusly:

At 0210 hours, the battalion moved out to conduct the ordered breakthrough. Route in very bad condition. Initial enemy resistance southwest of Chilki. The last remaining wheeled vehicles of the battalion were blown up there, since it was no longer possible for them to move any farther (deep depressions, mud). Enemy tanks moved out from Komarowka and attempted to prevent the breakthrough by means of heavy fire.

Untersturmführer Schumacher was committed south of Chilki with all of the available vehicles to eliminate the [enemy] tanks appeared there from Komarowka. Two tanks were eliminated. The command tank had to be blown up because of differential and track problems.

The commander and the adjutant switched over to Untersturmführer Schumacher’s tank. Untersturmführer Schumacher assumed command of the remaining tanks.

The commander and adjutant attempted to hold together the men of the battalion, which was not possible due to the over-all murky situation. The commander then mounted an 18-ton prime mover, since it was the only vehicle capable of moving forward in that terrain.

Enemy tanks arrived, moving from north to south, and engaged the tanks advancing southwest in the direction of Lißjanka, along with the other vehicles that had made it that far, with machine guns and main guns.

At the patch of woods east of Dshurshenzy, where the prime mover had to cross an open area, it was engaged by enemy tanks. The prime mover received a direct hit right behind the driver’s seat. The commander, Sturmbannführer Köller, met a soldier’s end.

Enemy tanks appeared once more at the western tip of the woods, approaching from Dshurshenzy. The high ground at the tip of the woods could not be crossed by the tanks. As a result, they had to be blown up.

The men of the battalion fought their way through individually. Towards evening, the majority of the battalion arrived in Lißjanka. The adjutant was wounded during the breakout attempt.

The sober language of the daily logs allow the reader to somewhat imagine the difficulty of what was experienced and also the scope of the tragedy that unfolded. The following first-hand accounts are well suited to allow even those unfamiliar with war to picture the events of that day.

The Tscherkassy Pocket never turned into another Stalingrad. The forces in the field and their leaders resisted the promises made by the Soviet leadership on flyers and bills and the German generals who had joined the Soviet side. They did not give up hope on the hill at Dshurshenzy, when they ran into the fires of Soviet tanks instead of the passage points of the III. Panzer- Korps, as the radio message from the Chief-of-Staff of the 8. Armee had led them to expect. The decisive event of 17 and 18 February was the breaking through of the inner and outer encirclements by decisive leadership in the pocket that was prepared to do anything and an extremely capable and brave force in the field. Of the approximately 56,000 soldiers, who had been encircled at the end of January, some 30,000 made the breakthrough to friendly lines. Some 3,000 wounded were flown out of the pocket.


General Nikolai Vatutin followed his early success in the Second Battle of Ukraine in November 1943 with this operation intended to expand his bridgehead over the winter of 1943-1944. It formed part of what Soviet historians called the “winter strategic offensive.” As Vatutin moved, his 1st Ukrainian Front faced repeated Wehrmacht counterattacks. Vatutin coordinated an enveloping attack with General Ivan S. Konev’s 2nd Ukrainian Front to the southeast. Their pincers closed around two corps of German 8th Army, trapping the Nordic-volunteer Waffen-SS “Wiking” Division and five Wehrmacht divisions inside a kotel 15 miles beyond the Dnieper River, around Korsun. As he had done at Stalingrad, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein once more tried and failed to fight his way through winter blizzards and hard Red Army resistance to relieve a trapped German army. Unlike the experience at Stalingrad, 30,000 of the nearly 50,000 men inside the pocket were able to fight their way out. By the middle of February 1944 it was over. Konev was promoted to Marshal of the Soviet Union and given command of both Ukrainian Fronts. The next planned offensive aimed to cut off all of Army Group South, but Vatutin-whose 1st Ukrainian Front was ahead of the pace set by Konev-was mortally wounded by anti-Soviet Ukrainian partisans a short while later.

The Sylwester offensives




The main Nordwind attack by the 17. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division in the Saar Valley went badly from the start. On January 5, 1945, a few of the monstrous Jagdtigers from schwere-Panzerjager-Abteilung 654, accompanied by a captured M4 medium tank, supported the attack near Rimling. An M36 90mm GMC from the 776th Tank Destroyer Battalion carefully moved into a flanking position and at a range of 900m, put a single armor-piercing round into the side of Jagdtiger number 134, causing an internal ammunition fire which destroyed the vehicle in a catastrophic explosion, blowing off the superstructure sides.

The failure of the Ardennes offensive convinced Hitler that some new tactic had to be employed when dealing with the Allies. Instead of a single large offensive, Hitler decided to launch a series of smaller, sequential offensives. As a result, some German commanders called the Alsace campaign the “Sylwester offensives” after the central-European name for the New Year’s Eve celebrations.

The departure of Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army – which was soon to be renamed the Sixth SS Panzer Army – did not mark the end of the participation of Waffen-SS panzer divisions against the Western Allies.

In tandem with his plan to strike into the Ardennes, Hitler had long dreamed of pushing into Alsace and retaking the border city of Strasbourg. Army Group G was to strike south in Operation North Wind, with the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division in the lead, in order to outflank the city. The division was rebuilt after being heavily battered around Metz in November 1944 and bolstered with the delivery of 57 StuG IIIs in early December. When the attack began on New Year’s Eve, the Waffen-SS division achieved the deepest penetration of the American lines until strong counter-attacks halted it. The main assault by Sturmgruppe 1, Simon’s 13. SS-AK with the 17. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division and the 36. Volksgrenadier-Division, ran into the deep defenses of the 44th and 100th Infantry Divisions in the Saar Valley. A narrow penetration was made towards Rimling and Achen, but in general, the attack in this sector was stopped dead in its tracks with heavy casualties. Sturmgruppe 1 had very little success in bringing up its armored support due to the poor road conditions and the weather. On the night of January 3 the offensive in this sector was halted.

Panzer support in Alsace was weak, since so many units had been shipped to the Ardennes sector. The only mechanized unit earmarked for the initial Nordwind attack was 17. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division “Gotz von Berlichingen,” a formation that had been in continual combat with the US Army since Normandy, and which had been burnt out and rebuilt on several occasions. The neighboring army commanders felt that its main problem was poor leadership, and it had lost several divisional commanders and numerous junior commanders during the autumn. The field army staff labeled the current commander as incompetent. Its main armored element, SS-Panzer-Abteilung 17 Bataillon was equipped mostly with assault guns instead of tanks, with 45 StuG III assault guns, three PzKpfw III command tanks, six Flakpanzer 38(t) vehicles, and four Flakpanzer IV Wirbelwinds on hand, of which 84 percent were operational. The SS-Panzerjager-Abteilung 17 Bataillon was similarly equipped with 31 StuG III assault guns, two Jagdpanzer IVs, one Marder III and eight towed 75mm PaK 40 anti-tank guns; only 67 percent of the vehicles were operational with many of the old StuG III assault guns being worn out or damaged in combat. Their strength was later increased by 57 assault guns that arrived after Christmas, but the reinforcements had been sitting out in the open for months and only a few could be rendered serviceable before the attack. The division’s two Panzer grenadier regiments were burned out and at less than half strength in the middle of December, but some additional troops were received in the last week before the offensive, mainly of “an inferior type” of German (ethnic Germans from eastern Europe). Senior officers at AOK 1 were so unimpressed by the poor performance of the 17. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division in the autumn fighting that they wanted to strip it of its assault guns to re-equip the 21. Panzer-Division, but Berlin refused.

Three days of heavy fighting followed in which the division’s commander, SS-Standartenführer Hans Linger, was captured when he took a wrong turn near the frontline as he drove in his command Volkswagen.

General der Panzertruppe Karl Decker’s 39. Panzer-Korps had been allocated the 10. SS-Panzer-Division to spearhead a breakout from the Gambsheim bridgehead, and the Panzers had begun their transfer over the river by ferry from the Freistatt area on January 15/16 after dark. The division set up headquarters in Offendorf and planned to begin their assault with a tank attack by I./SS-Panzer Abteilung 10, equipped with about 50 PzKpfw IVs and over 40 Panther tanks. The German tank attack collided with a two-pronged American attack. Combat Command B attempted to push into Herrlisheim again from the north, while at the same time, Combat Command A launched two attacks from the south. The attacks began in the pre-dawn hours of January 17 and did not go well for either side. In the early morning fog, the German tank column took heavy losses to US tank guns on the approach to Herrlisheim and withdrew to Offendorf. The American attacks against the northern corner of Herrlisheim and against the Steinwald failed with heavy losses. The 43rd Tank Battalion moved between Steinwald and Herrlisheim, taking anti-tank fire from both locations, but managed to fight its way into Herrlisheim from the south. The tanks and their supporting infantry and engineers came under unrelenting attack by German infantry armed with Panzerfaust rockets. The battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Nicholas Novosel, radioed back that “Things are hot” but radio contact then went dead. The 23rd Tank Battalion was instructed to reorient its attack towards Drusenheim farther to the north, passing through Herrlisheim in the process, but was stopped cold on the outskirts of the town by heavy fire without linking up with the infantry.

Back at Offendorf, the 3./SS-Panzer-Abteilung 10 under the regimental adjutant Obersturmbannführer Erwin Bachmann, set off again for Herrlisheim with a Panther tank company. They knocked out or captured most of the remaining Sherman tanks still in Herrlisheim; Bachmann was later awarded the Knight’s Cross for his actions that day. By the end of the day the 12th Armored Division headquarters had no idea of the fate of the 43rd Tank Battalion; the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion positions in Herrlisheim were overrun in the pre-dawn hours of January 18 and the battalion commander captured. The following day, the 12th Armored Division sent a rescue party to find any survivors from the missing 43rd Tank Battalion or 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, but they were brusquely pushed back by heavy German fire. An artillery spotter plane discovered a field full of charred Shermans south of Herrlisheim so further attacks were called off. In February, when the area was retaken by the US Army, 28 destroyed Shermans of the 43rd Tank Battalion were found in and around the town. The 10. Panzer-Division had captured more than ten Shermans and these would later serve with the division when it was sent east to fight the Red Army in February.

The 10. SS-Panzer-Division had no more luck over the next few days, beaten bloody during attempts to push out towards Kilstett on January 18. Its Panzer regiment lost 8 PzKpfw IVs and 21 Panthers during the fighting between January 17-21. The fighting on January 19 was especially costly, accounting for 22 of the 29 Panzer losses, so that evening the attacks were halted.

In a final irony, the veteran Waffen-SS general, Paul Hausser, who had recovered from his injuries received in Normandy, was placed in command of Army Group Upper Rhine for what would be the final months of the war from 29 January.

Soon the needs of the Eastern Front also resulted in Hausser losing the Frundsberg Division. The 17th SS Division was the only Waffen-SS armoured unit to remain on the Western Front until the end of the war. By 25 March, it had been reduced to some 800 men who were desperately holding the last German bridgehead on the west bank of the Rhine. The Frundsberg managed to escape across the mighty river, but the Americans caught up with the division at Nuremberg, where it tried to mount a series of rearguard actions during early April. It then surrendered to the Americans.