♦  THE WAFFEN-SS 1943-45 

World War II German Armed Forces


Page from a wartime US Army handbook, showing the officer rank insignia and branch colors of the Waffen-SS

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In the months following its catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad, the German Army strained every nerve and muscle to replace and rebuild its depleted formations. Priority was given to the mobile forces: the panzer and motorized infantry divisions—the latter retitled panzer grenadier divisions in late 1942. The combat divisions of the Waffen-SS, which had been heavily engaged on the Eastern Front, were included in the rehabilitation program. In matters of organization, equipment and training they came under the authority of Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, the Army’s leading tank expert, whom Hitler had appointed as Inspector-General of Armored Troops (Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen) on 1 March 1943.

The four existing Waffen-SS motorized divisions—now called panzer grenadier divisions—were rebuilt in accordance with a new table of organization and equipment that effectively transformed them into panzer divisions. They resembled their Army counterparts but had various extra units: an assault gun battalion, motorcycle infantry and engineer companies in the panzer grenadier regiments, rocket artillery batteries, etc. Four additional Waffen-SS panzer divisions were in process of formation and more were planned—though in the event only three were added to the Waffen-SS order of battle as panzer divisions, the others becoming panzer grenadier divisions instead. At this time all divisions were numbered, so that their formal title became, for example, 3. SS-Panzerdivision Totenkopf.

The accompanying diagram depicts the authorized organization of the 1. SS-Panzerdivision Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. As the senior division of the Waffen-SS the Liebstandarte was especially favored and had various extras tucked away here and there, e.g. regimental antitank companies and a larger armored reconnaissance battalion. The 5. SS-Panzerdivision Wiking had no rocket launcher batteries, its artillery was all towed, and its armored reconnaissance battalion was smaller than those of the other existing divisions. The three new panzer divisions could not, due to equipment shortages, be organized to standard; only the 12. SS-Panzerdivision Hitlerjugend came close. None of the SS panzer divisions actually received the heavy panzer company (Panzer VI Tiger tanks) that the new table of organization specified.

Infantry of the Waffen-SS wearing their distinctive camouflage smock and helmet cover. (Bundesarchiv)

The new panzer grenadier divisions had much the same organization as the panzer divisions, minus the panzer regiment. None of their panzer grenadier battalions received armored halftracks. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division, raised in late 1943, was typical. It arrived in France short of motor vehicles and was equipped there with captured and requisitioned French trucks. The Waffen-SS panzer grenadier divisions were supposed to have a battalion of medium tanks but the 17th had to make do with an assault gun battalion instead. One of its artillery battalions should have been self-propelled but the necessary equipment was unavailable and all artillery was motor towed. Nor were the division's troops of the same high quality as those of the older SS divisions. Most of its original cadre came from replacement units or were conscripts, including a large contingent of ethnic Germans from Romania. There were also a number of French volunteers.

Also raised at this time were four Waffen-SS panzer corps to command its divisions. This in turn necessitated the formation of nondivisional corps troop units, such as were designated Heerestruppen (General Headquarters Troops) by the Army. Units of this type included heavy artillery and rocket artillery battalions, heavy tank battalions, assault gun battalions, motorcycle infantry battalions and engineer battalions. The corps used them to augment its subordinate divisions as necessary, e.g. by allotting extra artillery to divisions participating in an attack. The Waffen-SS designated them as Special Troops of the Reichführer-SS (Sondertruppen der RFSS).

Thus by late 1943 there were seven Waffen-SS panzer divisions: Liebstandarte, Das Reich, Totenkopf, Wiking, Hohenstaufen, Frundsberg and Hitlerjugend. These were supplemented by four panzer grenadier divisions: Polizei, Nordland, Reichführer-SS and Götz von Berlichingen. There were also a number of motorized assault brigades (Sturmbrigaden)—actually battle groups created by attaching extra units, e.g. an assault gun company, to a panzer grenadier battalion or regiment.

Panzer VI heavy tanks of the Waffen-SS in Russia during the Battle of Kursk, July 1943 (Bundesarchiv)

In addition to mechanized units, the Waffen-SS embodied a number of other formations. At the end of 1943 these consisted of three mountain infantry divisions (Gebirgs-Divisionen), a cavalry division and two infantry divisions. One of the latter was manned by Latvians and the other was the original Polizei Division that had been formed in 1939 with Order Police personnel. Eventually it was merged with the new 4. SS-Polizei-Panzergrenadier-Division. One of the mountain infantry divisions—13. Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS “Handschar” (Kroatische Nr. 1)—was manned by Bosnian Muslims with a leavening of Catholic Croats and ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsch) resident in former Yugoslavia. This was the first Waffen-SS division to be raised with foreign personnel.

In the last two years of the war the Waffen-SS rose to a nominal strength of 38 divisions. But many of them, raised on an emergency basis, had the actual strength of brigades or regiments. Their personnel came from here, there and everywhere: France, Belgium the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Croatia, Ukraine, Estonia, Volksdeutsch from all over Europe. To distinguish them from the original Waffen-SS divisions they were titled SS-Freiwilligen Division (SS Volunteer Division) or Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS.

Perhaps the most notorious of these miscellaneous formations was the Dirlewanger Brigade (SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger). It was originally formed in 1940 with convicts who'd been convicted of poaching, and was placed under the command of Oskar Dirlewanger, an alcoholic criminal sadist who became known as the most evil man in the SS. The ranks of the Dirlewanger Brigade were soon filled with violent criminals of all kinds, and on the Eastern Front it compiled a record of atrocity that even SS senior officers found disturbing. During the Warsaw uprising (August 1944) the brigade carried out repeated  massacres of Polish civilians, including 500 children on one occasion. Early in 1945 the brigade was redesignated as the 36. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS, fighting its last battles in the defense of Berlin. Dirlewanger himself, who during the battle had been wounded for the twelfth time, was captured by the French Army in June 1945 and died in its custody—allegedly being done to death by vengeful Polish soldiers.

During the Nurenburg Trials the Waffen-SS was declared a criminal organization due to the numerous war crimes committed by its units, and its status as part of the larger SS organization. However, men who'd been conscripted into the Waffen-SS and had committed no war crimes were granted an exemption. As things turned out most veterans of the Waffen-SS went on to live normal lives in postwar West Germany, many receiving pensions from the government and some even serving in the Bundeswehr, the army of the new democratic state. In the former German Democratic Public (East Germany) the regime's official anti-fascist stance served as a cover for the state security services' extensive employment of former Nazis, including SS members.

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Organizational Diagrams 





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