Myths of the Waffen-SS
Disproportionately high losses in the Waffen-SS
It is often widely spread and even the famous Field Marshal of the German Army, von Manstein, asserts this thesis in his memoirs that units of the Waffen-SS suffered relatively higher and unnecessary losses in battle than units of the German army. However, there are no statistical surveys to support this assertion.
Nevertheless, high casualties are attributed to the Waffen-SS because of the fanaticism of their relatives, the poor leadership of their officers and the sometimes poor training.
However, this topic is very complex and extensive, but according to the current state of knowledge, this assertion is incorrect, especially as a generalization.
The fighting units of the Waffen-SS consisted primarily only of combat units and their training and combat schools. On the other hand, the longer existing German army had many more higher staffs, support units such as intelligence services, military police, constructing units troops and engineers, plus medical, supply, workshop, transport services and the world’s largest military railway system.
Therefore, the army also provided these services for the Waffen-SS. This included larger staffs with administrative tasks, but also the training commands, which were also more numerous in the Waffen-SS than their own.
As a result, it was obvious that the actual Waffen-SS had a larger share of actually fighting combat troops than the army, which had a larger share of non-combatting services. For this reason alone one can assume that the losses of the Waffen-SS must have been proportionally higher than in the army.
For this purpose, the SS-Verfügungstruppe (later SS Division Reich), Leibstandarte-SS-Adolf Hitler and SS-Totenkopf Division were intended as elite units.
Such formations were therefore often used for operations at crucial points of the front. This was especially true of the first six Waffen SS divisions, as well as the SS Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions that were created later. Therefore, they were normally deployed at front line sections with the most intense fighting, both defensive and offensive.
But the other Waffen-SS formations also saw intense fighting under the same circumstances as Army divisions on various occasions during the last two years of the war. During this period, the losses of all ground combat branches of the German armed forces were considerable.
The naked, statistical figures of the German government WASt office, which archives the fates of war victims, stated in 1972 that approximately 950,000 men served in the Waffen-SS until the end of the war. Of these, 253,000 were registered as killed or missing in action, which is just under 27 per cent.
In the German army, on the other hand, 11 million men served, of whom 3,280,000 were registered as dead or missing, which is just under 30 percent. Since there was a far higher proportion of ‘non-combatant’ units in the army, this would result in an even higher percentage of deaths among combat troops than in the Waffen-SS, where there were only a few non-combatants.
However, these figures lead to wrong conclusions. For in order to compare the losses between the army and the Waffen-SS, the different circumstances of the individual divisions in battle would also have to be taken into account. These include their tasks and operational objectives, against which opponent and under what circumstances they fought in each case, the terrain and the enemy’s superiority of forces.
For example, a more detailed study of Performance on the Western Front in 1944 showed that some divisions of the Luftwaffe and the Army achieved a better Fighting Power and thus a more favorable loss ratio than SS formations. However, such a study would have to be made for a large part of the battles of most divisions of the Wehrmacht in order to be conclusive.
Furthermore, it must be considered that due to political influence, operational considerations or other factors, units of the Waffen-SS were not sacrificed, such as the 6th Army in Stalingrad or the same army again in Romania in 1944. The same applied to the surrender in Tunisia, where there were also no larger Waffen-SS formations. Also in Sicily no Waffen-SS formations were used, since there was also a great risk of losing units there.
At these and other endangered positions, such as coastal protection, garrisons, or in positions under heavy air, sea or artillery fire, the units of the army had to ‘take the rap’, resulting in disproportionate losses.
During the Second World War, the continuous combat load of the Waffen-SS units was significantly lower than for most units of the army. Only a few Waffen-SS units saw action in Poland in 1939 or Western Europe in 1940, and none of them were usually larger than a regiment. There were only three divisions at that time: SS Verfuegungs (Disposal) Division, Totenkopf and SS Polizei (Police) Division.
In the second half of 1941 there were also only six Waffen SS divisions on the Eastern Front, while 136 divisions of the army were in constant combat.
In 1942 there were still only six Waffen-SS divisions and three brigades, while more than 200 Army divisions were fighting on the Eastern Front.
Some newer Waffen-SS divisions were used only against Partisans for practically their entire existence, except for the last six months of the war. Although this was a brutal and dirty minor war, it was by no means as costly as fighting against the Red Army.
In the army, so-called Volksgrenadier (peoples grenadiers, short ‘VG’) divisions were later created or restored from destroyed units. Some of these VG divisions were formed with demoralized cadres of broken divisions and filled up with persons from the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and Navy, who had practically no experience in infantry combat.
After a formation exercise of no more than six weeks, these divisions were sent into action, the lack of training and equipment being compensated by indoctrination. Since the summer of 1944, 76 of these Volksgrenadier Divisions with dubious combat value and high expected casualties were deployed by the army, which alone was double the number of all Waffen-SS Divisions.
After listing all these statistics and objections in both directions, the idea that the Waffen-SS suffered disproportionately higher losses is best of all still an unproven and incomprehensible generalization.
Poorer leadership in the Waffen-SS
As mentioned above, one of the reasons for the alleged excessive losses of the Waffen-SS is that their leadership was worse than that of the army. Here it is claimed that the officers of the Waffen-SS brought more Nazi zeal than military expertise.
However, this is not substantiated by a look at the leadership of the various Waffen-SS divisions. Rather, all division commanders had military experience from the World War One and most of them were even already in the officer rank.
However, only a minority had served continuously since the end of the war, but the same applied to the much larger army that had emerged from the Reichswehr, which had only been 100,000 strong until 1936.
The leadership of what developed into the Waffen-SS came primarily from the Reichswehr and the police. Just as in the army, these long-time serving officers passed on their knowledge and experience to the younger ones. These included the students of the two SS officer schools, which had already been founded in 1934 and 1935.
The fact that the abilities of the original cadre officers and also of those who had been trained since 1934 were more than sufficient for the Army is reflected in the numerous positive evaluations of their superiors from the Army and the many awards they had received.
It has also been claimed that Paul Hausser was the only important high-ranking commander to emerge from the Waffen-SS. However, this ignores the numerous highly esteemed corps commanders during the Second World War.
At least Wilhelm Bittrich (II SS-Panzer corps), Felix Steiner (III [Germanic] SS-Panzer corps), Herbert Otto Gille (IV SS-Panzer corps), Artur Phleps (V SS Volunteers Mountain Corps), Walter Krüger (VI SS Volunteers Corps) and Matthias Kleinheisterkamp (XI SS-Panzer corps) distinguished themselves in their positions, which was confirmed by their superiors from the army.
In addition, numerous Waffen-SS men, who had just the rank of junior officers in the 1930s, became equally successful division commanders. Among them were Theodor Wisch, Werner Ostendorff, Hermann Priess, Karl Ullrich, Otto Kumm, Sylvester Stadler, Heinz Harmel, Fritz von Scholz, Fritz Witt, Georg Bochmann, Bruno Streckenbach, Franz Augsberger and Jürgen Wagner Augsberger received the Knight’s Cross and all others the Oak Leaves or higher for this award. This was almost always done by suggestion of their impressed superior corps or army commanders of the army.
The Waffen-SS was better equipped than the army
The German participants in the war often claimed that the Waffen-SS received the best equipment and weapons, and more besides.
This is certainly true for parts of the Waffen-SS divisions, but certainly not for the majority.
As in most armies of World War II, the various units received weapons according to availability, current or planned tasks, and their reputation for being able to use them properly.
The original Verfügungs and LSSAH Divisions were considered elite units by the Army because they had been established with the best ‘human material’ and training. As a result, they were fully motorized at a very early stage, equipped with artillery and received additional, special weapons, such as armored vehicles and also assault guns. The armament and equipment was almost completely made of German material.
On the other hand, the Totenkopf units were not considered to be of a particularly high quality and when the SS Totenkopf Division was set up during the winter of 1939-40, it had to make do mainly with booty weapons from Czechoslovakia.
The SS Police Division, which was formed at the same time, was organized and equipped in the same way as an infantry division of the army, including horse-drawn supply vans and artillery.
Thus, the two main divisions of the Waffen-SS were better equipped than the majority of the infantry divisions of the Army, but also compared to the SS Police Division or even more so to the SS Totenkopf Division.
In the course of 1942 Leibstandarte, Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking also received tanks. The SS Division Prinz Eugen, set up at the same time, received mainly French and Yugoslavian booty weapons and was not as well-equipped as the mountain troops of the army or the SS Mountain Division Nord (North).
In the course of the war the SS-Division LSSAH, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking were supplemented by 9th SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen, Frundsberg and 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) and all of them were equipped as complete Panzer divisions with two tank battalions in a tank regiment and one of six infantry battalions with infantry fighting vehicles.
Although this organization corresponded to the armored divisions of the Army, SS armored battalions had four instead of three Panzer companies in each battalion, which meant they had more tanks, though not necessarily better than those of the Army.
By 1945, some SS Panzer divisions, such as the Leibstandarte or Hitlerjugend, had one additional platoon per company and one additional company per tank battalion. These divisions also received their own Nebelwerfer (rocket launcher) battalion and sometimes Tiger tanks as opposed to all other Army or SS Panzer divisions.
These specially reinforced SS Panzer divisions were regularly used as spearheads for counterattacks on the Eastern or Western Front.
However, it must be pointed out that such deviations also existed in the case of Army Divisions. Already in the summer of 1943 the outstanding Army Panzer Division, which in honor of the infantry was nevertheless only called the Panzergrenadier Division Grossdeutschland, had three battalions in the Panzer Regiment and eight battalions of Panzergrenadiers.
The Panzer-Lehr-Division set up the following spring, however, had only four infantry battalions, but all of them were equipped with infantry fighting vehicles. These two tank divisions of the Army were also used like those of the Waffen-SS in particularly difficult operations.
As this shows, the degree of quality in the equipment varied greatly and the ordinary infantrymen of the army were therefore probably as jealous of the soldiers of the SS-Leibstandarte as of those of Grossdeutschland (Greater Germany).
But as the Waffen-SS grew during the war, most of their new units were infantry divisions, and they were no better equipped than those of the army. Infantry units, both from the Army and the Waffen-SS, had a lower priority in the allocation of the best weapons than the tank units.
For example, the 29th Waffen-Grenadier-Division with Italian personnel was part of the Waffen-SS, but was equipped with Italian weapons and not nearly as well-equipped as the LSSAH, for example.
Among the Mountain Troops of the Waffen-SS, the SS-Nord was expanded in order to be able to fulfill its defense mission on an impossibly long section of northern Karelia. It received a motorized infantry and later an armored infantry battalion and, at the end of 1943, a Norwegian ski battalion. In the meantime, the other SS mountain divisions had been organized differently, taking into account their tasks. Some reached the standard of the Army’s mountain troops, while others remained below it.
The infantry regiments of SS Prince Eugen, for example, were given an additional battalion, which they also urgently needed in the heavily rugged and forested areas where their soldiers had to fight partisans. In contrast, their light and medium artillery battalions had only two batteries each, since more was probably not necessary against poorly equipped partisans and was of little use in difficult terrain.
All this shows, therefore, that the preferential issue of better and more weapons to the Waffen-SS cannot be a generally valid assertion. The type of division, the tasks and the expectations of their superiors must always be considered.
In general, however, it seems that the Panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS were better off than most of their colleagues in the army. And even among the Waffen-SS Panzer divisions, some were better equipped than others.
The mountain troops of the Waffen-SS were sometimes better equipped, sometimes a little stronger, but often weaker than their counterparts in the army.
Finally, some infantry divisions of the Waffen-SS were significantly weaker and less well equipped than most in the army, probably due to their late creation in war and their secondary tasks.
Here to Part II: Waffen-SS Crimes.
References and literature
The Waffen-SS (Martin Windrow)
Waffen-SS Encyclopedia (Marc J. Rikmenspoel)