Waffen-SS at war
The SS-Verfügungstruppe (Waffen-SS from April 1940) took part in the Polish, French and Balkans campaigns not as an integral formation, but split up in Army formations. Often in the van and always eager for the fray, the Waffen-SS was to show an aggressiveness which sometimes bordered on the reckless.
The prewar expansion of the SS Verfügungstruppe had exhausted Himmler‘s supply of manpower allowed him by the Army Recruiting Office, but in one year he was able to raise the strength of the Waffen-SS to 150,000. First he removed the hand-picked and well-disciplined concentration camp guard regiments (SS-Totenkopfstandarten) and formed them into a division under the command of the former Inspector of Concentration Camps Theodor Eicke. Then he formed another division from policemen, because he was also the head of the German police.
The difficulty in finding recruits was to prevent more rapid expansion, and it was in order to overcome this problem that Himmler’s recruiters began to look for the men in the countries recently defeated and occupied by Germany who had expressed an interest in joining the Waffen-SS.
In June 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, the Waffen-SS field formations were as follows: SS Division Reich, SS-Totenkopf Division, Polizei and Wiking, brigades ‘Battle Group Nord’ and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, and an infantry regiment, with a strength of total 36,517 men.
Total Waffen-SS strength including staffs, establishments and schools was 160,405 men. However, the fighting on the Eastern Front was to be tougher than anything previously encountered and by November the Waffen-SS had already suffered 30,000 casualties.
By mid-1942 the four crack divisions of the Waffen-SS Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking had all been withdrawn from the front for badly needed rest and refit, and the addition of a regiment of Panzer IV tanks, so that they could then be classified as Panzer grenadier divisions. At this time the organization of a Panzer grenadier division was two grenadier regiments, an artillery regiment and a tank regiment and ancillary units.
In 1943 the picture changed dramatically. The replacement of heavy battle-casualties and the need for increased manpower for the strengthened divisions led to the Army lifting some of its recruiting restrictions. The Army was discredited by defeat in Russia and Africa, and Hitler had been seduced at last by the appeal of Himmler’s growing army of iron-hard SS formations. Chopping logic about post-war responsibilities was now a luxury – Hitler needed generals and divisions who won battles, and Paul Hausser’s recapture of Kharkov with the SS armored divisions had just given him his first victory for a long time. The Waffen-SS now underwent a rapid and enormous expansion, in which certain distinct elements may be traced.
SS strength, which in September 1942 was 187,638, had reached 350,000 by the autumn of 1943. During the last two years of the war the well-equipped German Waffen-SS Panzer divisions were used as a fire-brigade to plug gaps in the German line wherever they occurred.
At the end of the war the Waffen-SS had 38 divisions on paper and a strength nearing one million men, half of whom were Germans, one-quarter ‘ethnic’ Germans and one-quarter foreigners.
Exact figures will never be known, but the best estimates indicate that some 180,000 Waffen-SS soldiers were killed in action during the war; approximately 400,000 were wounded, and probably another 40,000 or more were listed ‘missing’.
The entire establishment of the ‘classic’ divisions – LAH, Das Reich and Totenkopf – were casualties several times over, and the teenagers of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) were still full of aggressive spirit after suffering losses of 20 per cent dead and 40 per cent wounded in four weeks’ continuous fighting in Normandy.