♦  THE WAFFEN-SS 1941-42 

World War II German Armed Forces


Waffen-SS light machine gun team in Russia, 1941-42 (Bundesarchiv)

● ● ●

At the beginning of the Russian campaign (22 June 1941) there were three Waffen-SS motorized infantry divisions: Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking. All were similar to but larger and better equipped than the Army’s motorized infantry divisions. The elite Liebstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler had been expanded from regimental to brigade size (and was classed as a division), having received a fourth motorized infantry battalion, a motorized reconnaissance battalion, a composite field artillery regiment and other units. Additionally, the so-called Kappfgruppe Nord (Battle Group North) was in the process of being raised; later it was redesignated as the 6th SS Mountain Division Nord. Finally there was the Polizei Infantry Division, which though it was administered by the Waffen-SS, remained outside that organization until February 1942.

Standard for motorized and armored battalions of the Liebstandarte SS-Adolf Hitler

The Waffen-SS order of battle was rounded out by two motorized infantry brigades formed with men drafted in from the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS Death’s Head Units)—mostly concentration camp guards. There was also an SS Cavalry Brigade. This unit was formed in July 1941 using two Totenkopfverbände cavalry regiments raised in 1939 for “pacification” duties in occupied Poland. In Russia these three brigades were employed on rear-area security duties in the Pripet Marsh area, a mission that involved them in the commission of numerous frightful atrocities against civilians and Red Army POWs. It has been estimated that troops of the SS Cavalry Brigade killed almost 24,000 Soviet civilians, many of them Jews, during "anti-partisan" sweeps in August and September of 1941. The SS Cavalry Brigade's commander was SS-Standartenführer Hermann Fegelein, who later (June 1944) married Eva Braun's sister Gretl.

In addition to these formations, a number of  foreign volunteer units had been raised and were undergoing training. They were sponsored by the SS and their personnel wore the SS uniform, but they were not as yet considered part of the Waffen-SS. Most of these volunteers came from the Scandinavian countries, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Liebstandarte and the three motorized divisions were all heavily engaged in the opening battles of the Russian campaign, gaining a reputation—somewhat exaggerated—as elite shock troops. Totenkopf (along with Polizei) served in Army Group North; Das Reich served in Army Group Center; Liebstandarte and Wiking served in Army Group South. Kappfgruppe Nord served above the Arctic Circle in the Army of Norway.

Having suffered heavy casualties and equipment losses from June 1941 through early 1942, the Waffen-SS divisions were refitted in preparation for the 1942 campaign—Himmler’s influence ensuring that they received the best available manpower and material. The Liebstandarte became a division in fact as well as in name, and as the senior formation of the Waffen-SS was exceptionally well provided for. It acquired both a panzer battalion and a full assault gun battalion, the former equipped with 20 x Panzer II and 42 x Panzer IV tanks. The divisional antitank battalion and the regimental antitank companies received self-propelled 47mm and 75mm AT guns in large numbers. Two of the other three divisions also got a panzer battalion; only Totenkopf had no tanks. One infantry battalion of Das Reich received armored halftracks in place of trucks.

A Panzer IIIJ (50mm/L60 gun) of the Wiking Division in Russia, spring 1941 (Bundesarchiv)

Also by 1942 the foreign legions that had been set up in 1941 were ready for service and began to appear in the Waffen-SS order of battle. Some, like the SS-Finnisches Freiwilliger-Bataillon (SS Finnish Volunteer Battalion) were incorporated into the divisions—the Finns serving with Wiking. Most, however, like the SS-Freiwilliger-Legion Norwege (SS Volunteer Legion Norway) were assigned to the two SS motorized infantry brigades. As the war dragged on with the need for manpower becoming more and more acute, many additional foreign formations were raised by the SS, eventually encompassing most of Europe’s major ethnic groups.

The 1942 organization of the Waffen-SS motorized divisions transformed them from motorized infantry divisions to light mechanized divisions with a significant number of armored fighting vehicles: an organizational template for the panzer grenadier division—as both Waffen-SS and Army motorized infantry divisions were soon to be retitled. It was never possible for the Army’s panzer grenadier divisions to achieve the desired standard but thanks again to Himmler, their SS counterparts were more fortunate. Usually they had both a tank battalion and a company—sometimes a full battalion—of assault guns, along with a strong contingent of self-propelled antitank guns. At full strength they were virtually light armored divisions but even the Waffen-SS had trouble replacing the heavy losses its units suffered on the Eastern Front and later in Western Europe. And the Army, in competition with the Waffen-SS for increasingly scarce resources, was the ultimate loser. The men, weapons and equipment that went to the Waffen-SS were a drain on the Army, which could have made far better use of them in the increasingly desperate struggle to stave off a greatly superior enemy coalition.

● ● ●

Organizational Diagrams 




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


BACK to WAR ROOM Front Page