Campiagns of the 3rd SS tank division Totenkopf (Part II: from 1943 to 1945).
Back to Part I: SS-Totenkopf-Division 1939-42.
Kursk tank battle and the Donez Basin
The Totenkopf, which had expanded into a Panzergrenadier division in France – but now actually even had the tank strength of an army Panzer division type 1943 – returned to the Eastern front at the beginning of 1943 because of the Stalingrad crisis.
Together with the SS division Das Reich it formed I SS tank corps, which arrived too late for the 6th army trapped in Stalingrad, but together they destroyed the Russian 6th army.
On 26 February, however, the division suffered a severe moral blow when division commander Theodor Eicke was killed when his observation plane in which he was flying was shot down by concentrated infantry fire from nearby Red Army troops. That is why the SS Panzergrenadiers Regiment 6 (Armored Infantry) was given the honorary title ‘Theodor Eicke’.
The morale of the men of the division was quickly restored, however, as they were involved in a successful operation that recaptured Kharkov, destroying the Russian 25th Guard Rifle Division.
In May and June the division was Army Reserve in the Kharkov area and was refreshed. The Pz.AA. 3 (Tank Reconnaissance detachment) was increased to 6 and the SS Panzer Regiment 3 to 10 companies, including Panzer-Pionier-Schützenpanzern (engineer APC’s) and a heavy company of Tiger tanks. Panzeraufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (Tank Reconnaissance detachment) received two and the Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon (Tank engineer battalion) a light armored company with APC’s (armored personnel carrier). The IV.Pz.Art.Regt. 3 (Self-propelled artillery regiment) was completely refilled and the SS-Panzerjäger-Abteilung 3 (tank destroyer detachment) was reorganized and reinforced with parts of the SS-Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 3 (assault gun detachment) until autumn 1943.
The next important operation of the 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Division Totenkopf took place in July 1943, when it was thrown into the Battle of Kursk. As part of a strong army of nearly one million men and just under 3,000 tanks, the division protected the right flank of the attacking 4th Panzer army.
Totenkopf initially made good progress when she penetrated 12.5 miles (20 km) deep into the southern section of the salient and smashed the Russian 52nd Guard Division. By the end of the second day, the division was already 20 miles (32 km) deep in enemy territory.
On July 12, the German advance guard had reached Prokhorovka, where they ran into a newly arrived, huge Russian tank reserve. The Totenkopf division alone faced an opponent four times as strong which forced her to the defensive.
While the biggest tank battle in history took place around the Death Head’s soldiers, the division suffers badly, but could reach its primary goal, namely to hold the right flank against the Russian attack. By the time the German offensive broke off, the division had lost almost half of its tanks and suffered terrible losses.
Originally it was planned to transfer all divisions that formed the First SS Tank Corps to Italy, where the Allies had meanwhile landed in Sicily. However, a Russian offensive in the Donez Basin forced the divisions Das Reich and Totenkopf to return to the Eastern Front and only the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte was transferred to Italy for a short time.
The Totenkopf Division immediately moved south to the area around Stalino, where the Russian attack could be stopped after heavy fighting.
Practically at the same time, however, a new Russian offensive started around Kursk and the division hurried north again. Thrown into the line at the access roads to Kharkov, the SS men held for a full week despite heavy enemy pressure, before the decision was made that the city could not be saved.
Nevertheless, the two SS divisions Totenkopf and Das Reich began local counter-attacks to cover the withdrawal of German troops from the area.
During August and September 1943 the division was in action together with Das Reich and the army elite division Grossdeutschland as ‘fire brigade units’, which were thrown from one place to the next on the threatened fronts. The arrival of these battle-harded units usually saved the day, even if only temporarily, until they were moved somewhere else.
In October, the Totenkopf Division was involved in a major counter-attack that brought the Russian advance at Krivoi-Rog to a halt. The city was a vital connection, supply and railway junction for the Wehrmacht and its loss would have meant a catastrophe.
During November, the development of the Totenkopf into an SS Panzer division began, although it was relatively weak for the time being due to the previous losses. Nevertheless, the Russians lost 500 tanks and 5,000 PoWs to Totenkopf during these fights alone.
New Russian advances forced Totenkopf back into the breach and on November 18 a three-day battle began, with the men of the division destroying another 250 tanks. After a few days of silence another Russian assault began, which was also knocked off.
Despite further losses of 20 to 25 percent of its strength in these battles, Totenkopf was able to bring another Russian attack to a halt in the area before the division was moved to Kirovgrad.
Together with the Grossdeutschland Division, Totenkopf was involved in many hard battles between Kirovgrad and the River Bug to cover the retreat of the German units.
The collapse of the Army Group Center
In March 1944 the 3rd SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf was moved once again, this time to Balta, where it took over the backing of the retreat of the Army Group B as rearguard. Further defensive actions in Romania further reduced the division’s strength.
In May the division received several thousand reinforcements from the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division Reichsführer SS and in June it was given a short break in the area west of Roman to refresh and complete its expansion into a tank division.
The armored infantry regiment 5 ‘Thule’ was fully equipped with medium armored personnel carrier and heavy weapons on self-propelled guns. Regiment 6 ‘Th Eicke’ with three motorized Panzergrenadier battalions also received medium armored infantry fighting vehicles and heavy weapons on self-propelled guns for the regiment staff, regiment units and the 1st/6th(gp).
At that time, the division also received drafted conscripts from the Wehrmacht as replacements and subsequently had a strength of over 20,000 men and around 162 armored vehicles plus light and medium armored infantry fighting vehicles.
|3rd SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf||Elements|
|Stab/3. SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf (staff)||Div.Begl.Kp.(mot) 1944|
|SS-Pz.Gren.Rgt. 5 'Thule'||I.-III.Rgt.Einh 13-16.Kp.|
|SS-Pz.Gren.Rgt. 6 'Th.Eicke'||1942 from SS-IR. 9/mot.|
|SS-Panzer-Rgt.3 'T'||I.-II-10. (PzKpfw VI Tiger I) - 9. (Pz.Pi.Kp)|
|SS-Pz.Art.Rgt.3 'T'||I.-IV.-I.(SF)-1944/Pz.B.-Bttr. (SP artillery)|
|SS-Pz.Aufkl.Abt.3 'T'||five Pz.Aufkl.Kpn.(le.SPW) (Armoured recon with light APC's)|
|SS-Pz.Nachr.Abt.3 'T'||Fernspr.-/Funk-Kp.-le.Nachr.Kol. (signals)|
|SS-Pz.Jäger-Abt.3 'T'||three Pz.JG.-Kpn./1944 from StuG.Abt. (assault guns)|
|SS-Pz.Pionier-Btl.3 'T'||two Pi.Kpn./mot.-3.(gp)Kp./SPW (engineers, APC's)|
|SS-Pz.Flak.Abt.3 'T'||3 heavy, 1 mixed anti-aircraft gun batteries|
|SS-Sturmgeschütz-Abt.3||three Sturmgeschütz-Batterien (assault guns batteries)|
|SS.Pz.Div.Na.Fü.-3 'T'||Supply and Administration|
On 23 June, the Russians launched their great summer offensive in 1944, Operation ‘Bagration’, which led to the rapid collapse of the German Army Group Center. Therefore, in July Totenkopf was transferred by rail to the area of Grodno and Bialystok in order to resist vs the strong pressure of the Russian 2nd Tank Army.
With a power ratio of one to ten, however, it was no more than delaying the Russian advance and the division was pushed step by step to the west.
During August, Totenkopf and the 5th SS Panzer division Wiking were deployed to defend access to Warsaw. At the beginning of September they repelled Russian units that had invaded the eastern suburbs and drove them across the Vistula again.
However, the success was only temporary and in October Totenkopf was forced to withdraw to Modlin and had meanwhile been reduced to 75 percent of the strength of June.
Further defense actions east of Modlin until the beginning of December and then replenishment near the front until December 30, 1944.
Hungary and Austria 1945
At the end of the year the 3rd SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf was transferred by rail to the Army Group South in Western Hungary. Together with the Wiking Division, on 1 January 1945 they attacked south of the Danube from the area east of Komorn to try to relief the besieged Budapest. After 10 days of tireless fighting, Russian reserves and stiffening resistance bring the SS divisions to a halt and the attack is stopped by order of the army command.
The divisions march into the area southwest of Stuhlweissenburg, where they begin the third relief attack on Budapest on January 18. This time the progress is much better and within two days more than 200 enemy tanks are knocked-out by Totenkopf with its Tiger and Panther tanks near Val. The breakthrough comes within 12.5 miles (ca. 20 km) of Budapest until strong Russian reserves bring the attack to a halt again.
Heavy Russian counter-attacks force the SS units back to the forest of Bakony at Lake Balaton, where they dig-in.
In March 1945, the 3rd SS Panzer division Totenkopf takes part in the ‘Fruehlingserwachen’ (‘Spring Awakening’) offensive, the last major German attack on the Eastern Front. Together with the SS divisions Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Hohenstaufen, these units try to advance over hopelessly unsuitable terrain with their heavy tanks. After about 18.5 miles (30 km) it doesn’t go on and an angry Hitler stops the offensive.
Enemy counter-attacks soon push the weakened Totenkopf Division into the outskirts of Vienna. During March and into April, the division fends off Russian attacks until it no longer has the strength to resist the far superior enemy forces. Vienna falls on April 13.
At the end of this month, the division still had only 1,000 soldiers capable of fighting and 6 tanks left.
On May 9, 1945, the division surrendered in the area south of Linz on the Danube to elements of the US Army. They accepted the surrender on condition that the Death Head’s soldiers disarm the guards of the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp. The soldiers carried out the mission and then the Americans revoked the agreement and handed the survivors over to the Russians in mid-May.
It is pointless to mention that only a few soldiers who wore the Death Head to the end survived Russian captivity as prisoners of war.
A total of 46 members of the Death Head’s Division were awarded the Knight’s Cross during the Second World War.
References and literature
The Waffen-SS (Martin Windrow)
Waffen-SS Encyclopedia (Marc J. Rikmenspoel)
Hitler’s Elite – The SS 1939-45 (Chris McNab)
Waffen SS in Action (Norman Harms)
Into the Abyss – The last years of the Waffen-SS (Ian Baxter)
Waffen SS in Russia (Bruce Quarrie)
Waffen-SS (1) Forging an Army 1934-1943 (Robert Michules, Ronald Volstad)
The Waffen-SS (1) – 1. to 5. Divisions (Gordon Williamson)
Verbände und Truppen der deutschen Wehrmacht und Waffen-SS im Zweiten Weltkrieg 1939-1945 (Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv und Arbeitskreis Wehrforschung)
Die gepanzerten und motorisierten deutschen Grossverbände 1935-1945 (Rolf Stoves)