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

Coming of Age: Summer 1942 - Summer 1943

The Summer of 1942 saw the exhausted motorized formations of the SS pulled back individually for much needed refit and reinforcement. It was a process from which they were to emerge for the first time as full fledged armored units. Before the year was over, they were to be the key elements in the most spectacular counteroffensive launched by the Germans during the war.

The first of the SS units to be pulled out of line was the most badly mauled, Reich. The bulk of the division entrained for France at the beginning of March 1942, leaving behind most of its equipment and a battalion-sized formation [Kampfgruppe Ostendorf] to continue to back up the front near Rzhev. Ostendorf stayed in that general area until relieved in mid-June, whereupon it rejoined the bulk of the division, now at Bergen, Norway. The Totenkopf regiment that had been broken-up on the drive to Moscow was replaced by a new third regiment, Langemarck, this one fully motorized. As with the other three motorized SS divisions, Reich received a Panzer-Regiment to bring it up to Panzer-Grenadier division strength. It was also renamed twice again, in May becoming the more grammatical SS-Division "Das Reich" and in November, in acknowledgement of its new composition, SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Das Reich". It was to stay in training until recalled to the Eastern Front along with LAH and Totenkopf in late January 1943, in response to the crisis that threatened the German positions in Russia following Stalingrad.

Leibstandarte followed a similar course. It was withdrawn from its positions on the Mius in June 1942, being pulled back to France, where it was based just outside Paris. Re-equipping and refitting, LAH followed the pattern of Das Reich very closely, even down to being renamed. In September it became SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler". And as with its SS companions it remained in the West until recalled to Russia in January 1943.

In contrast, Totenkopf remained in its position behind the Lovat in North Russia until late October 1942. Only then was it withdrawn to France for what was to be a much shorter refit period. In November it was renamed SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Totenkopf" taking part immediately in the occupation of Vichy France. Totenkopf remained in Southern France until recalled as part of the SS-Panzer-Korps.

Alone among the "original" SS divisions, Wiking was not withdrawn to France for refit, but was reinforced while in position on the Mius. There it received the same strengthening, including a Panzer-Regiment. And it was the first to test its new armor, as it assigned to the 57. Panzer-Korps along with 13. Panzer-Division and given a leading role in the upcoming Summer offensive. The drive was launched 19 July 1942, Wiking seeing heavy fighting from the start, first in the drive on Rostov and then on to the oil fields of the Caucasus. By September part of the oil fields was in German hands, but the attacks had ground to a halt, strangled by the very distances they had covered. At the same time that the division was renamed SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Wiking" in November 1942, the attack was formally called off and defensive positions taken along the Terek. The Russian attacks at Stalingrad finally forced the Germans to acknowledge the weakness of their position in the Caucasus and heralded the retreat of Armee-Gruppe A from the South. By January 1943, when the other SS formations were arriving to help stem the crisis on the Donets, Wiking was back at the Manych, holding open the retreat route through Rostov. At the same time that the Manstein Offensive was clearing up Russian penetrations south of Kharkov, Wiking was similarly employed in mid-February containing the attack of the First Guards Army south of Izyum. When the last Russian resistance had been crushed in late February 1943, the division was in much the same position it had been in a year before, behind the Mius and in need of a refit.

While LAH and Reich were refitting in France and Totenkopf spent a quiet Summer in North Russia, Wiking spearheaded the German drive into the Caucasus, again part of von Kleist's 1. Panzer-Armee.

Wiking took its new Panzer Regiment into action immediately. Seen on the outskirts of Rostov are two PzKpfw Ills, on the left an ausf J and on the right a PzBefWg III ausf H. The ausf J has the divisional insignia on its near fender. Both are in overall Panzer Grey. The lack of a main armament for the command tank makes camouflage more important, hence the amount of foliage carried. [Bundesarchiv]

At the same time that the Russians were tightening the noose around 6. Armee in Stalingrad, plans were being laid for the hoped for dismemberment of the entire German Southern Front by a series of armored attacks. The attacks were intended to split the German armies into easily manageable pieces and push them back against the Black Sea and the Dnieper. It is fortunate for the Germans that the Stalingrad crisis caused the recall of first two and then the third of the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Divisions in France, giving an adequate armored force immediately available when crisis threatened on the Donets. And fortunate too for the obstinace and audacity of a former Army Generalleutnant without whom that reserve might have ceased to exist before its greatest battle.

In the waist deep grass of the Kuban Steppes, a recon team with their nearly hidden SdKfz 222 scans the horizon.

Having been ordered from France in late January 1943, LAH and Das Reich arrived in Russia in early February and were immediately thrown into the defense of Kharkov. The adhoc SS-Panzer-Korps, under the command of SS-Obergrüppenführer Paul Hausser, went into combat on 11 February with specific instructions from Hitler to hold the city at all costs. Within two days, Hausser was requesting to be released from this condition as the city was being increasingly outflanked to either side. It was a request that fell on deaf ears, as Hitler insisted that "his" SS, above all others, should follow his orders to the letter and without question. Thus Hausser found himself caught between the order to hold the city and the obvious fact that within days the SS-Panzer-Korps and its magnificent mobile striking force would be encircled and forced into costly street fighting for which it was least suited. When, by the morning of 15 February, a single road only linked Kharkov to German lines, Hausser chose to save his divisions, ordering them out of the city, informing a furious Hitler only after the fact. It was these divisions, LAH and Das Reich, along with the newly arrived Totenkopf, that Manstein used to eradicate the penetrations of the Russian Third Tank Army. So obviously correct was Hausser's decision, that in spite of the fact that Hitler's immediate reaction had been to order him shot, Hausser was never officially reprimanded for his direct disobedience.

Not only were the three SS units able to help entrap the Russian spearhead, but they then led the most successful German counterattack of the war. Having cleared up the last enemy resistance south of Kharkov by 3 March, the SS-Panzer-Korps started a bold sweep around that city to envelop any remaining Russians west of the Donets. It must have been a source of great personal satisfaction for Hausser when on 11 March his troops were again fighting in the streets of Kharkov, this time as part of a victorious army sweeping the disorganized enemy before them. By 18 March 1943, the three SS Division had taken Belgorod, held a bridgehead across the Donets and stood poised behind the exposed flank of the entire Russian Central Front. Visions of Moscow again danced in German heads, and even the Russians begrudgingly admit that they were never closer to defeat. There were no more reserves available to the enemy, everything had been risked in the vain attempt to destroy Heeres-Gruppe Süd, and now nothing could stop the tanks of SS-Panzer-Korps from rolling up the flank of the enemy, except exhaustion, mud and Hitler.

A sight too frequently encountered in the drive for the Caucasian oilfields. As here at Maykop, which Wiking took on 1 August 1942, the retreating Russians would fire the fields, destroying pumps, wellheads and towers, making the oil useless to the enemy. [Bundesarchiv]

The last of those foes was to prove the most disastrous. The mud of a Russian spring brings operations to a halt for three to four weeks. It would take five weeks, Manstein figured, to totally rest and refit his units. He was ready to move at the beginning of May. Manstein's offensive could have been resumed with a minimum of difficulty. The Russians had only been able to plug the holes in their front at Belgorod by weakening it elsewhere and throwing in poorly trained scratch formations. A breakthrough now, a very real possibility, would find the Russians even weaker than before on the rest of the Front and utterly lacking in reserves.

But Hitler said no. Tigers, Ferdinands and Panthers were beginning to appear or were promised and Hitler wanted his armies, particularly the SS, re-equipped with these new superweapons. Also, he claimed, he wanted to draw more Russian troops into the salient that now existed between Belgorod and Orel, so that when it was cut off, that alone would be disastrous to the Russians. Instead of an attack only from the South aimed eventually at Moscow, Hitler wanted to build up the forces at Orel as well, and launch a predictable pincer attack aimed only at pinching off the now strengthened Russian forces around Kursk. But to do this, to create a second equivalent striking force under Model at Orel would take time. It was time that Germany did not have.

Taking notes on the enemy. Here three Wiking grenadiers check out an abandoned Russian T-34C. Moving past in the background is a Wespe [officially 1FH 18/2 auf Fgst PzKpfw II [Sf] SdKfz 124], a self-propelled 10.5cm howitzer on the PzKpfw II chassis. Completely bare of markings, the Wespe is painted overall Desert Brown, a Yellow-Brown color adapted for the DAK in Tunisia, but also used on vehicles in the Caucasus.

All good things must come to an end; the enemy offensive that surrounded Stalingrad and drove deep wedges into the German Front in Southern Russia required the recall of the three SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Divisions that had been refitting in France. LAH and Das Reich were thrown into the defense of Kharkov in early Winter 1942. Newly arrived from France, this PzBeoWg III ausf H observation tank of Leibstandarte is camouflaged with Dark Green stripes sprayed over the Panzer Grey base. Note the unusual "Luftwaffe" style cross on the superstructure side, having a Black center [which became common later on Sand Yellow vehicles] and a Black outline to the White Balkenkreuz. Note also the turret schurzen, designed to protect against hollow-charge weapons like the Russian magnetic mine. The uniforms of the crew show the magnificent standard of equipment of SS troops. The reversible parka that all three are wearing Mouse Grey side out was exclusively as SS item. [Scott Van Ness]

It was time the Waffen-SS nevertheless used to advantage. The three divisions of the SS-Panzer-Korps, in particular, were tremendously reinforced, gaining a Tiger-Abteilung each. All four of the original SS motorized divisions were strengthened and brought to a peak of preparedness. Elsewhere the Waffen-SS had continued its growth. Four more divisions, all armored, and an assault brigade [Sturmbrigade "Reichsführer SS"], were added to the eight already in existence [SS-Kavallerie-Brigade becoming SS-Kavallerie-Division in 1942]. The new divisions [SS-Panzer-Grendadier-Division "Hohenstaufen", [10.] SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Karl der Grosse", [11.] SS-Panzer-Grendadier-Freiwilligen-Division "Nordland" and SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Hitlerjugend"] were in various stages of assembly and training, none would be combat ready before the end of 1943.

Thus the Waffen-SS now had a nominal armored strength of eight divisions. But it was on the four "original" SS-Panzergrenadier divisions that all eyes were focused as Summer approached in South Russia, particularly the three of SS-Panzer-Korps, LAH, Das Reich and Totenkopf. They represented the most Germany had to offer in both men and equipment. They were fine, strong and victorious. Much was expected of them. They would never again be as strong.

Manstein rallied the German forces that were forced out of Kharkov. In a series of brilliant maneuvers, led by the SS-Panzer-Korps, the enemy thrusts into German positions were destroyed and Kharkov and Belgorod were taken back from the Russians.

Two Leibstandarte vehicles are seen during the recapture of Kegichevka, a town near Kharkov, in early February 1943. A PzKpfw IV ausf G leading a Kfz 15 Horch is surrounded by grenadiers with thin White camouflage coats over their reversible parkas. The tank has been snow camouflaged while the Horch has not, indicating priorities in the use of short supply items, such as White paint.

Another PzKpfw IV ausf G of Leibstandarte, this one from the seventh company of the Panzer regiment. Of interest is the repetition of the cross on the superstructure side, the White outline fading into the camouflage leaving only the Black center visible. Against the snow and a White building, the camouflage is reasonably effective. [Bundesarchiv]

Advancing down the main street of a Russian town, a PzKpfw III ausf J followed by a PzKpfw II ausf F, both of Leibstandarte, keeps a wary eye out for remaining pockets of enemy resistance. On the rear of both vehicles the national and divisional insignias have been left visible through the camouflage. Note that the wreath with LAH's shield and key emblem has been reduced in extent. This was to be the "definitive" style. [Bundesarchiv]

Passing in front of a field artillery battery, this "Stummel" of Leibstandarte makes an excellent study of the futility of temporary snow camouflage, wearing off almost completely where the engine or gun heat would melt snow or where the dismounting of the crew would rub it off. The Stummel [officially an SdKfz 251/9 mounting the 7.5 cm L/24 Kwk], a brand new vehicle at this time, was extremely popular because it brought massive firepower to individual panzergrenadier companies. In the background are a pair of 10.5 cm IFH/18 Field Howitzers and a single SdKfz 11 three ton halftrack support vehicle. [National Archives]

Two shots of similar vehicles during the Manstein Offensive showing the deterioration of the water soluble Winter camouflage.

A PzBefWg III ausf K of Totenkopf's first Panzer-Abteilung's headquarters company shows a pristine new coat of White paint at the beginning of operations. There is an even coat of camouflage over the whole vehicle, covering even the national insignia, leaving only a part of the driver's plate and the turret side unpainted to expose the divisional sign and turret numbers. [Bundesarchiv]

An identical command tank, this time from Totenkopf's second tank battalion and seen a month or so later. The White paint is now wearing off in many areas leaving the original Panzer Grey to show through. Note the additional track shoes added on to the glacis and driver's plates for extra protection. [Bundesarchiv]

Having left Kharkov with considerable official disfavor, the units of the SS-Panzer-Korps were understandably proud of their recapture of the city. Leibstandarte, being the first into the city, was quick to rename the city's central Red Square as "Platz der LAH". As the offensive moved North to Belgorod, many support services were left based in Kharkov. The above signs, as well as showing the new name for the main square, point to the Field Hospitals [Feldlazarett] of all three divisions and give particularly clear examples of their divisional markings.

Spring is coming to Central Russia, as these armored cars of Leibstandarte fight their way into Belgorod. An SdKfz 223 radio car is seen being led by a pair of SdKfz 222 four wheel armored cars. The snow has almost disappeared and the ground is getting soft enough for the first wheel ruts to appear. On the 223, mud appears to have been applied to the vehicle sides to cover what remains of the snow camouflage. Note the prominently displayed national flags on the rear decks, evidence of total German air superiority. [National Archives]

Mud! The Manstein Offensive mires to a halt, perched on the flank of the entire Russian Central Front. In this crowded shot a wide variety of Leibstandarte vehicles is displayed. Halted to the right is an SdKfz 10 one ton halftrack of one of the Panzergrenadier-Abteilungen. Passing it is an SdKfz 250/1 light APC of a motorized artillery battery and beyond that is a line up of very early StuG III ausf Gs [again indicating that SS units got new equipment first] from the division's assault gun battalion. Note that all troopers once again are wearing their reversible parkas Mouse Grey side out. The camouflage canvas draped over the one ton's hood is of Italian origin. It is up to the reader's imagination to figure out which of many ways that could have gotten there. [National Archives]

While the three divisions of the SS-Panzer-Korps, assisted by Wiking, were making military history, other SS units were engaged in much less glamourous, or successful enterprises. The SS-Freiwilligen-Division "Prinz Eugen" fought the entire war, from October 1942 on, in the grim anti-partisan battles of the Balkans. Much like the American experience in Vietnam, the Germans were at best able to occasionally disorganize and dislocate the enemy, never to defeat them. And again in striking similarity, the superior equipment, organization and training of Prinz Eugen was no advantage, and was in some ways of grave detriment. Never being considered a "Front Line" division, Prinze Eugen was supplied mainly with captured equipment. Being a mountain-trained unit, the Bergmutze [mountain cap] and climbing boots were standard issue.

Supported by captured French Hotchkiss H35s and wearing captured Russian snow coats, the men of Prinz Eugen set off on their first, and typically unsuccessful, major operation of the war, Unternehmen Weiss, in January 1943. [National Archives]

IBAN: UA423348510000026200404121108

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