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SS ARMOR. A Pictorial History of the Armored Formations of the Waffen-SS

A PzKpfw III ausf J and PzKpfw II ausf F of Leibstandarte advance into a Central Russian town on the way to Belgorod during the Manstein Offensive, March 1944.

Author's Note

This book came into being as the direct consequence of the discovery of a previously unpublished group of SS photographs among the resources of the Bundesarchiv, Koblenz. While some of the photos are not of the best quality, the unique opportunity to put these and others from Squadron/Signal's archives into print, and to update and supplement the previous "Waffen SS in Action" at the same time, demanded immediate action. It is not my intention here to write a definitive history of the SS, as many other books explore that subject in great depth. It is, however, my definite intention to explore by use of these photographs, the evolution and use of SS armor, its camouflage and markings.

The unfortunate fact with which any researcher has to deal when studying SS armor is that nearly all the photographs date from a fairly brief mid-war period. Earlier on, there was no official SS armor, and later, when the tide had turned, few photos were taken and fewer still have survived. To partially overcome this deficit, I have at times liberally interpreted "armored" as "motorized" allowing the inclusion of some vehicles from units before they were officially armored and others that were never officially armored.

The format of this book is basically chronological. The story of the SS motorized and armored units in World War II seems naturally to fall into four periods, which are the basis for "chapters" in this book. The text has been kept short, giving only a brief synopsis of events, because it is hoped that the maps and photographs, with their captions, will present the substance of this book in the most useful form.

Note: All maps in this book show political boundaries as of 1939.

Armored Warfare! The "co-ordination of arms" preached by Guderian, the key to the success of German armor, could hardly be more clearly shown than in this photograph of Leibstandarte at Kursk. Although only one tank is visible [a PzBefWg III silhouetted against the sky on the right], the view gives a good idea of the numbers and kinds of vehicles required by a mechanized unit. At the crest of the ravine an anti-tank detachment is digging in, five SdKfz 10 one ton halftracks being visible, while the command group is prudently sited at the bottom of the ravine mounted on three Kfz 70 Horch mPkws and a single Kfz 1/20 VW Schwimmwagen. Meanwhile, a reconnaissance unit is crossing their front under the protection of the far ridge with an even dozen SdKfz 250s, while the command tank and an additional 250, probably from regimental HQ, view the scene from atop the ridge. Those vehicles on which camouflage can be ascertained appear to be in overall Panzer Grey or Sand Yellow with Red Brown overspray, this being a transitional period. [Scott Van Ness]


The story of SS Armor begins with the Polish Campaign of 1939, although the first official SS Panzer regiment did not come into existence until Spring 1942. And even prior to that, the temporary SS groups that did exist were all motorized to a far greater extent than their Army counterparts. The armored support groups that were normally assigned to motorized infantry regiments, such as Reconaissance and Panzerjäger detachments, began to be assembled during the summer of 1939, some seeing combat in Poland.

Our story thereafter is primarily concerned with the four main SS divisions that were in existence at the time of Barbarossa, both because they were the most active, and because they are the most fully documented. We follow their rise to the point, that in July 1943, the SS-Panzer-Korps (containing three of these divisions) may well have been the most awesome armor grouping of its kind ever assembled, massing over 1,000 armored vehicles. We then follow the decline of these and the newer SS armored units as they tried to stem the overwhelming Allied tide. In each battle losing more than could be replaced, they eventually surrendered as mere shadows of their former strength.

Much has been written about the elite status of SS units, some of it true. What is undeniable is that, elite or not, the Waffen SS tended to be better equipped than other German units. They would receive new equipment first and be supplied with replacements of both equipment and personnel more frequently. This could not help but make them more effective in combat. Nor in portraying the Waffen SS can it be forgotten that their ranks were drawn, at least at first, from politically pure Nazi believers, with all that implies of national, political and racial hatred. It is not surprising that these men soon acquired a reputation for brutality beyond that necessary in warfare. While less directly implicated than other SS establishments, and no more so than many army units, the Waffen SS tarnished their warrior image by involvement in numerous attrocities, from assisting in the massive slaughter of Jews, Russians, Poles and others in the East to the relatively petty barbarities, such as Malmedy, in the West. The Waffen SS was not involved in the planning, and only marginally in the staffing, of the concentration camps. Yet, any attempt to portray the Waffen SS as clean while others were committing the crimes simply does not withstand truthful examination. Perhaps most truthfully, it can be stated that the fighting branches of the SS took the qualities of the German soldier to its extremes. At times brutal, they could also be extraordinarily brave and resourceful, seemingly most often against tremendous odds.

Development: Fall 1939-Spring 1942

Between the beginning of hostilities in September 1939 and the Summer of 1942 the armored units of the Waffen SS came into existence. In response to the demands for an increasing mobilization of the nation, this period of less than three years saw expansion and strengthening of the mechanized SS troops far exceeding that of the previous ten. At the beginning of this period, the Waffen SS was comprised of several independent standarten (regiments), and a few motorized support units. Some of these were intended to be joined into a motorized division at some future date. And even this level of organization had only been reached through the efforts of a retired army officer. Yet by the Summer of 1942, the Waffen SS was composed of six full divisions, four of those having just received two battalion Panzer Regiments that made each of them more than equivalent in strength to any Wehrmacht Panzer Division.

The SS had been in existence since before 1923 but did not officially differentiate its military branch from the police and security sections until 1933 when the SS-Verfungungstruppen (SS-VT=Special Purpose Troops) were gradually defined. These included the Stabswache (Hitler's Bodyguard). The Stabswache, after an intervening reorganization, was officially renamed Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler at the Nurnburg Party Rally in September of that year, under the command of Josef "Sepp" Dietrich. In December 1934, Leibstandarte was officially motorized, setting the pattern for later Waffen SS formations.

The continuing desire on the part of the SS to field combat formations to rival those of the newly re born Wehrmacht led to the announcement in March 1935 that an SS-Division would be formed from various SS-VT units. After more than a year had passed and little significant progress had been made toward that goal, the SS retained the services of Paul Hausser, a retired Army General-leutnant. Hausser knew he had his work cut out for him, taking the loosely organized regional formations of the SS-VT, molding them into the tightly disciplined grenadier standarten and auxilliary groupings essential to a crack division. The first requirement he laid down was that all elements of the division were to be entirely motorized, meaning that the future SS-V-Division would be a mobile, as well as elite, formation. Over the next two years Hausser oversaw the establishment of the second and third motorized Standarten, Deutschland [D] and Germania [G].

Because of the political as well as military character of the early SS military formations, they were often put in the most visible positions during Germany's pre-war muscleflexing. In March 1936, Leibstandarte [LAH] was the first unit to cross into the re-militarized Rheinland, entering triumphantly (and photogenically) into Saarbrucken. Exactly two years later, LAH again led the way, this time as the spearhead of Guderian's XVI Armee during the Anschluss. Immediately following this occupation of Austria, the fourth Standarte Der Fuhrer [DF], composed of Austrian Nazis, began to assemble. A year and a half later this regiment was not ready for combat, so it was with the original three SS Standarten [LAH D & G], those SS-VT divisional troops who had been assembled to this point, and a few assorted battalion-size Totenkopfverbande (units formed to give military experience to concentration camp guards) that the SS went to war.

The SS units that were available for the Polish Campaign were not used as a group but were split up, LAH being assigned to the 11. Armee-Korps of 10. Armee (H-Gr Süd) while Germania was placed into H-Gr Slid reserve. Both travelled considerable distance and saw some fighting. Deutschland had an even more exciting time of it. Along with a number of Army units, D (together with SS-VT divisional troops) had been transported to East Prussia in June 1939. There it was ostensibly to participate in a massed parade at the Tannenberg memorial and take part in maneuvers. Among the formations also in East Prussia was 4. Panzer-Brigade, composed of 7. and 8. Panzer Regiments (later to form the armored elements of 10. Panzer-Division). In order to give von Küchler's 3. Armee something equivalent to the Panzer Divisions massed elsewhere on the Polish border, Deutschland was joined to the 4. Panzer-Brigade and SS-VT Reconnaissance and Artillery Battalions (SS-Auf-Abt and SS-Art-Abt) to form the ad hoc formation, Panzer-Verband Ostpreussen. 1. Armee-Korps, of which Pz-Verb Ostpr was part, served as the left wing of the German advance into Poland, eventually participating in the capture of Brest-Litovsk.

Upon the successful completion of the Polish Campaign, and with the unpleasant realization that the Allies were not going to sue for peace, the German armed forces began a feverish expansion and reorganization. This was especially true of Waffen-SS which had proved itself in Poland to be brave but at times poorly organized and led.

The already authorized SS-VT-Division [mot] was hurriedly assembled and began intensive training. Two new SS divisions were authorized in October 1939 which also began rapid assembly. The SS-Totenkopf-Division [SS-T] was formed around the nucleus of the camp guard battalions that saw action in Poland. The Polizei-Division [Pol], composed of Ordnungspolizei, an already semi-military branch of the national police, was organized at the same time. It was always the weakest of Waffen-SS divisions. Not being composed of politically and racially pure party members, the Polizei-Division was never favored to the same extent as other Waffen-SS divisions, receiving captured or obsolescent weapons and not being motorized until 1943. In fact, it was February 1942 before its police uniforms were traded in for those of the Waffen-SS and that is name was changed to SS-Polizei-Division. None of the SS units took part in the invasion of Denmark and Norway, but by May 1940, the Waffen-SS, now comprising three divisions (two motorized) and a strong regiment, was ready again for action.

The disposition of Waffen-SS troops for the French Campaign was again designed for maximum visibility. Leibstandarte and SS-T were in Army Reserve at the beginning of action, though the motorcycle battalion of LAH was positioned in the front ranks intended to race ahead of other ground units to Rotterdam to link up with Kurt Student's Fallschirmjäger. The SS-Verfugungdivision [SS-V, its name changed from SS-VT in April] was assigned to 39. Armee-Korps (mot) along with 9. Panzer-Division. SS-V saw some fighting almost immediately, becoming involved with fierce local resistance soon after passing into Holland. It was not until nearly two weeks later that the remaining SS units came face to face with the enemy. Coming into action piecemeal along the southern edge of the Dunkirk salient of trapped British and French troops. They took over frontage from Guderian's tired Panzer Divisions. The SS units maintained pressure [SS-T along with Rommel's 7. Panzer-Division fighting off a major Allied armored counterattack at Arras, 21-22 May], but as was the case with the rest of the German forces, were unable to press hard enough to prevent the evacuations from Dunkirk.

With the completion of the first half of the French Campaign, all German Forces were again reorganized and moved into position on the Somme-Aisne line. SS-T moved into Army Reserve seeing no more serious fighting, being used to mop up pockets of resistance behind the advancing Panzers. Both Leibstandarte and SS-V were joined with the Army's 9. and 10. Panzer-Divisions1 in 14. Armee-Korps(mot) at Amiens. The second phase of the French Campaign began on 5 June 1940. Attacking south from the Amiens bridgehead, von Kleist's 14. Korps met only limited success. So fierce was French resistance at this point that, after two days of negligible advance, the corps was withdrawn and transferred 75 miles to the East. On 11 June, 14. Korps attacked again, this time at Berry-au-Bac, and this time with success. The advance now was rapid, by 14 June the Seine was crossed and orders received to drive on the Loire to cut the retreat of French units heading for Bordeaux. By 24 June, when the Armistice came into effect, SS-V was approaching the Garonne Southwest of Angouleme, having covered more distance than any other German unit. Under the terms of the Armistice, the units of 14. Korps continued to the Spanish frontier to complete the occupation of coastal France.

The SS goes to war, sending its motorized grenadier regiments into action. In this unique view, taken during the invasion of Poland, two Kfz 15 Mercedes-Benz 230s of Leibstandarte paused on a Polish backroad. Considerable effort has been made to suppress the identity of these troops. The "SS" has been at least partially masked on both license plates, the troops have had their collar tabs removed and cuff titles covered over. [Scott Van Ness]

Immediately after the conquest of France, the Waffen-SS began another period of rapid expansion and reorganization. Both SS motorized divisions and Leibstandarte were given training areas in France, to complete at leisure the training that had been interupted by the French Campaign. SS-T was assigned to the Biscay coast area just north of the Spanish border where it remained until the end of April 1941. Leibstandarte and SS-V were both assigned to lead the projected invasion of Britain (Operation "Sealion"), and therefore began intensive amphibious training. LAH was the most immediate benefactor of this strengthening process, being raised to brigade status in August though it still retained the title of standarte.

In December, a fourth Waffen-SS division was authorized, to be composed of Scandanavian and Dutch volunteers and the standarte Germania taken from SS-V. In honor of famous regiment that was to be its core, the new division was named SS-Division[mot] "Germania". To make up for the loss of one of its regiments, SS-V was supplied with a newly formed, partially motorized Totenkopf regiment, and at the same time renamed SS-Division "Deutschland" after its remaining original standarte. Neither new name was to last very long because of the obvious confusion with the regiments of the same name. At the beginning of January 1941, Germania became SS-Division "Wiking". Wiking began to gather at Heuberg, being declared combat ready on 1 April 1941. Deutschland was renamed SS-Division "Reich" at the end of January. With the cancellation of "Sealion" and the decision to intervene in Yugoslavia and Greece, LAH and Reich were rapidly transferred eastward at the end of March. LAH was sent to Kyustendil, Rumania, where it became part of 40. Armee-Korps(mot) along with 9. Panzer-Division, and Reich went to Temesvar, also in Rumania, where it joined IR "Grossdeutschland" and Brigade "Hermann Goring" in the truly elite 41. Armee-Korps(mot).

The involvement of SS-Division Reich in the Balkan Campaign was brief but intense. As befits the status of the units it contained, 41. Korps was given the task of capturing Belgrade, a process which took only four days. After the capitulation of the Yugoslav capital on 13 April 1941, Reich was transferred to Poland in anticipation of the invasion of Russia.

Leibstandarte had a much more prolonged and arduous part to play. Breaking into Southern Yugoslavia on 9 April, LAH made contact the next day with the Italian forces that had retreated into Albania, completing the first phase of its task. It then immediately turned south into Greece in a drive that was to take it to southernmost tip of that country. Coming under fire to British forces that same afternoon, LAH began a sequence of outflanking maneuvers and frontal attacks in excellent defensive terrain that was to dislodge the Allies from Greece in 18 days. Never allowing the British a chance to establish themselves firmly, Leibstandarte, in conjunction with 9. Panzer-Division, forced them out of their positions in Northern Greece. Choosing not to follow the retreat of the Allies through Thermopylae and Corinth, LAH drove due south to Mesolongion. Crossing the Gulf of Corinth in fishing boats, Leibstandarte arrived on the Peloponnesus at the same time as the retreating British. By 25 April, the British had been forced into a small beachhead at Kalamata. In a pattern similar to Dunkirk, the British fiercely resisted German attack until arriving German reinforcements forced its surrender three days later, after most troops had been evacuated.

The entire Waffen-SS field strength was brought into line for the upcoming invastion of Russia. Hastily refitted (and renamed SS - Division Leibstandarte - SS "Adolf Hitler", but not strenghtened), LAH was designated part of 54. Armee-Korps, while Wiking were assigned to von Kleist's Panzer-Gruppe 1, both of Heeres-Gruppe Süd. Reich was assigned to Guderian's Panzer-Gruppe 2 of Heeres-Gruppe Mitte, while Totenkopf was part of Hoepner's Panzer-Gruppe 4 of Heeres-Gruppe Nord.

None of the SS units saw much action in the first days, all being held in close reserve. Wiking came into action first, on 29 June at Tarnopol. Its partner in the South, Leibstandarte, was not first blooded until it was used in the abortive attempt by Kurt "Panzer" Meyer's SS-Auf-Abt to storm the Tarter Ditch blocking the entrance to Crimea. LAH was then hurriedly transfered to Pz-Gr 1 to participate in the southern half of the massive encirclement of the Kiev Pocket, and remained part of that unit for the drive on Rostov. By mid-November, LAH was in the city and Wiking just north of it, both heavily pressed by Russian counterattacks. At the end of November, both had been badly mauled by fierce combat, and with the rest of the southern front were pulled back to more secure positions on the Mius. Those positions would be occupied against constant enemy attack until late Spring 1942.

Reich had remained in reserve until 10 July when it was thrown into the fighting at Yelnya on the Desna. Here, at the springboard to Moscow, Pz-Gr 2 held off Russian counterattacks for five weeks, in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. In late August, however, Reich was pulled out of line and moved south to, also, become part of the Kiev battle. It was to be the end of September before the division was back in position again facing Moscow, this time part of Hoepner's Pz-Gr 4. Reich was the only one of the SS units to participate in "Typhoon", the assault on the Russian captial. Setting out from Roslavl toward Borodino against strong Russian resistance, losses were so high that by 14 October the Totenkopf regiment [SS-Inf-Rgt. 11] that had been added to replace Germania was broken up among the Deutschland and Der Führer regiments in an attempt to keep them up to strength. The division had reached Mozhaisk five days later, 49 miles from Moscow, when mud halted advances. A full month would pass before the final drive began, by now too late to be successful. The attack reached Lenino, within 20 miles of the Kremlin, when it ground to a halt on 2 December 1941 in the face of one of the worst Winters on record and massive Russian reinforcements. The drive was officially halted three days later.

A lineup of LAH armored cars is seen here on parade through Prague, Czechoslovakia on 5 October 1939. An eight wheel SdKfz 231 is being followed by a 232 radio car and a pair of four-wheeled 221s. The most noticeable change in appearance is the darkening of the center of the White crosses that had been carried into the Polish Campaign. The highly visible White crosses had proved to be excellent targets for enemy gunners and were quickly modified. [Scott Van Ness]

On 12 January 1942, Reich having just moved into Winter positions between Staritsa and Gzhatsk, the first Russian Winter counterattack struck. What followed was over a month of a kind of Winter battle for which the German forces were neither equipped nor trained. For one terrible 17 day period, Der Fuhrer regiment was assigned the task of closing the ring behind the trapped Russian 39th Army and stopping all attempts at a breakout. (In closing the gap, DF linked up with the SS-Kavallerie-Brigade which had been mopping up resistance behind the lines until caught by the Winter attacks.) By the time it was over, Der Fuhrer was down to 35 men, and 2nd company having been wiped out to a man.

Meanwhile, Totenkopf had been fighting its own war of attrition in the North. First seeing action on 6 July 1941 in the vincinity of Daugavpils, within weeks it was being used to seal off Russian penetrations, a duty the division was to see frequently in the next year. Initially Northwest of Lake Ilmen and then South of the lake, Totenkopf successfully repulsed a series of enemy counterattacks, by mid-August being placed in immediate reserve between Lakes Ilmen and Seliger. It was to remain in that position relatively uneventfully until 12 January 1942, when the Russian Winter counteroffensive in the North was launched. After fighting against overwhelming odds alongside 2. Armee-Korps for three weeks, Totenkopf found itself encircled in the vincinity of Demyansk. The actual encirclement would last for slightly over two months, but the resulting salient projecting into the Russian lines at Demyansk was to be in existence for well over a year. Totenkopf however, was pulled back to the Lovat region and again placed in immediate reserve.

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