♦  THE WAFFEN-SS 1933-40 

World War II German Armed Forces


Waffen-SS troops in Poland, September 1939 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

● ● ●

Though the armed military branch of the Schutzstaffel—the Waffen-SS—was separate from the Army it served under Army operational control throughout the war. It got its start in 1933 when Sepp Detrich, Hitler’s former chauffeur and bodyguard who’d been made an SS officer, organized a small unit of about 200 men to serve as the Führer's personal guard. It soon grew to the size of a regiment and in 1934 was titled the Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler, later amended to Liebstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler. Standarte may be translated as regiment and Liebstandarte as bodyguard regiment.

Himmler's intention was to build up an SS armed force, completely loyal to the National Socialist regime, that would rival and eventually replace the Army. To that end, personnel were carefully selected, underwent rigorous physical and military training, and were thoroughly indoctrinated in Nazi racial ideology. The men of the armed SS were obliged to swear a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler, pledging "obedience unto death." In 1937 an officer training school was opened: the SS-Junkerschule Bad Tölz. In line with Himmler's long-range plans, the school's curriculum aimed at the production of politically and ideologically conscious officers, free of the conservative prejudices and outmoded habits of thought that Himmler believed to be characteristic of the Army officer corps. A second SS-Junkerschule was later established in the city of Braunschweig. The armed SS had its own unit designations and rank titles, similar to those of the  SA (Stormtroopers), e.g. Standarte for regiment and Standartenführer for colonel; its black prewar uniform and field gray wartime uniform were similarly distinctive.

Men of the Liebstandarte, circa 1938; the black uniform and white leather equipment were seldom worn after the war's outbreak (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Between 1934 and 1939 Himmler clashed repeatedly with the Army leadership over the expansion of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS Special Service Troops) as the armed SS came to be called. Though the Liebstandarte remained independent under Sepp Detrich's command, the rest of the SS-VT was commanded by Grüppenfuhrer (lieutenant-general) Paul Hausser. He was a former Army general officer who had joined the Nazi Party after retiring, and it was mainly due to him that it became an effective fighting force. But the Army High Command, which controlled military manpower and resources, gave the SS-VT low priority so that by 1939 only four regiments (Liebstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler, Deutschland, Germania, Der Führer), a field artillery regiment, a motorized reconnaissance battalion and some smaller units had been raised. Together these were sufficient to form a motorized infantry division but since no divisional headquarters had been organized as yet, the SS-VT units were dispersed throughout the Army at the beginning of the war. Deutschland, for example, was assigned to Panzerverband Kempf, a provisional headquarters formed to command various armored and motorized units stationed in East Prussia.

Heinrich Himmler, Reichführer-SS, who saw his armed SS as a key component of the future Reich (Photo: Imperial War Museum)

Organizationally, the four SS-VT regiments were similar to an Army motorized rifle regiment but had extra units such as a motorcycle infantry company and an armored car platoon.Three of them—the Liebstandarte, Germania and Deutschland—participated in the Polish campaign and there they committed the first of many atrocities for which the Waffen-SS was to become notorious. The Liebstandarte, for example, is known to have murdered some 250 Polish civilians, including Jews, mowing them down with machine guns.

In October 1939 three of the four SS-VT regiments and various other units were finally brought together under a division headquarters to form the SS-VT Motorized Division. It was similar to but larger than the Army’s motorized infantry divisions, which were reduced from three regiments to two after the Polish campaign. Also raised at this time was the SS-Totenkopf Motorized Division. This unit drew most of its men from the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS Death’s Head Units), the SS branch charged with guarding and administering concentration camps. It was organized similarly to the SS-VT Motorized Division and was armed in part with captured Czech weapons. The Liebstandarte remained independent and was soon expanded to the size of a brigade.

A fourth division raised at this time under Himmer’s auspices was the Polizei Division. Its men came from the Ordnungspolizei (Order Police), which Himmler commanded in his capacity as Chief of German Police. It was organized as an infantry division, with various support units supplied by the Army. When formed the Polizei Division was not classified as an SS formation, though it was later merged into the Waffen-SS. For the 1940 campaign it was assigned to Army Group C opposite the Maginot Line, and saw action toward the end of the battle.

The Liebstandarte, SS-VT and SS-Totenkopf all participated in the 1940 campaign, and once again the armed SS displayed its propensity for atrocities. In the village of Le Paradis, Totenkopf troops massacred 97 British troops after they surrendered and Liebstandarte troops shot some 80 surrendered French and British soldiers near Dunkirk.

SS-VT infantry in France, June 1940; the camouflaged smock and helmet cover were distinctive items of uniform. (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

In July 1940, a Führer decree officially renamed the SS-VT; henceforward it would be known as the Waffen-SS and would have its own higher command for administrative purposes. In December 1940 another Waffen-SS motorized division was formed. One of its regiments was Germania, transferred from the SS-VT Division. Other recruits were volunteers from the so-called Nordic countries under German occupation: Norwegians, Danes, Dutch, Flemings. Originally this division was titled Germania; later it was renamed Wiking (Viking).

The SS divisions were organizationally similar to their Army counterparts but generally larger, and Himmler exerted his considerable influence to ensure that they received the latest weapons and equipment. They soon gained a reputation as elite combat units, but this was due in large part to the fact that they were bigger and better equipped than corresponding Army divisions. Later in the war it was estimated that the resources required for two Waffen-SS panzer divisions could have been used to form three Army panzer divisions instead. The creation and expansion of the Waffen-SS was thus a mistake, consuming resources that could have been used more efficiently to bolster the strength of the Army.

Nevertheless, by the end of 1940 the units that would later become the five senior Waffen-SS divisions were in existence, with a major expansion of the Waffen-SS in the offing.

● ● ●

Organizational Diagrams 


Copyright © 2020 by Thomas M. Gregg. All Rights Reserved


BACK to WAR ROOM Front Page