Hitler’s Personal Army: The Role of the German Waffen-SS in World War Two

When Hitler became Chancellor he ordered the formation of a new armed SS unit to escort and protect him. In September 1933 this was officially named the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, or LAH. Simultaneously, other groups of armed SS barracked troops were established across Germany and were attached to local Nazi leaders, called the SS-Verfugungstruppe under Paul Hausser.

A third armed SS group called Wachverbande was created under Theodor Eicke to guard the growing numbers of concentration camps. This grew into five battalions and in March 1936 was renamed the SS-Totenkopf division or Death’s Head units due to their skull and crossbones collar patches.

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Himmler with Waffen-SS officers in Luxemburg, 1940.

The Waffen-SS Before the War

Before war officially started, the Waffen-SS or ‘armed SS’ were trained in assault detachment tactics, mobile battle troops and shock troops. By 1939 the LAH had been expanded to include three motorised infantry battalions and the Verfgungstruppe had additional infantry Battalions.

Their ultimate role was to be a force that would maintain order across the whole of Nazi occupied Europe on behalf of the Fuhrer and to achieve that, they were expected to prove themselves as a fighting force and make blood sacrifices at the front, alongside the regular armed forces. They fought alongside the German Army and dealt with all political enemies of Germany by sending those capable of work to concentration camps and removing the remainder as the Wehrmacht took each new territory.

The Waffen-SS role in the Blitzkrieg

In 1939 another combat division was formed by a mass transfer of all uniformed police into the Waffen-SS for the blitzkrieg of 1940 through France, Holland and Belgium, while the Leibstandarte fought across Yugoslavia and Greece.

In 1941 the Waffen-SS were ordered into Russia and engaged in fighting at Minsk, Smolensk and Borodino. The Waffen-SS started as an elite organization, but as war progressed, these rules were relaxed and some Waffen-SS units formed after 1943 had questionable combat records, such as the SS Dirlewanger Brigade, who were set up as a special Anti-Partisan Brigade to remove political partisans, rather than as a strategic fighting force.

SS Tank Divisions

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SS Panzer regiment in Belgium, 1943

1942 saw the SS divisions refitted with heavy tanks and the numbers of Waffen-SS troops then totalled over 200,000. During March 1943 an SS Panzer-Korps had a major victory when they took Kharkov with the Leibstandarte, Totenkopf and Das Reich Divisions fighting together, but under their own generals.

Special Forces

The Waffen-SS had a number of Special Forces similar to the British SOE, who were tasked with special operations such as the rescue of Mussolini by one of the Waffen-SS Mountain Units, the SS-Gebirgsjäger.

Waffen-SS Losses Under the Allied Attack

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Waffen SS infantry in Russia, 1944

In spring 1944 the exhausted and battered SS divisions were ordered to the west, to repel the expected attack of the Americans and British. The Panzer Korps, commanded by Josef ‘Sepp’ Dietrich and his sixth Panzer Army, slowed down the Allied advance across France.

Estimates say that during World War Two, around 180,000 Waffen-SS soldiers were killed in action, with 70,000 listed as missing and 400,000 wounded. By the end of the war over 1 million soldiers in 38 divisions had served in the Waffen-SS, including over 200,000 conscripts.

No Surrender Allowed

One of the major differences between the German Army and the Waffen-SS was that they were not permitted to surrender on any account. Their sworn allegiance to the Fuhrer was to death, and while the Wehrmacht divisions were surrendering, it was the Waffen-SS who fought on to the bitter end. In the final week of April, it was a desperate group of Waffen-SS who were defending the Furhrer’s bunker against all odds and the weight of the superior numbers of Allied forces.

The Post-War Fate of the Waffen-SS

After the war the Waffen-SS was named as a criminal organisation at the Nuremberg Trials due to their connection to the SS and NSDAP. Waffen-SS veterans were denied the benefits granted to other German veterans, with only those who were conscripted into it being exempt from the Nuremberg declaration.

Freelance Writer, Sub Editor & Historical Author of: Reinhard Heydrich Iron Heart a WW2 history book about the SS General known as The Butcher of Prague. Published by Fisher King and available worldwide on Amazon.