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

The Russian Spring offensive caught the Germans unprepared, eventually surrounding the entire 1.Panzer-Armee in a huge pocket around Kamentz-Podolsk. The only SS unit caught inside was K-Gr Lamerding of Das Reich, but LAH and later Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg (2.SS-Panzer-Korps) were involved outside. These two views of Leibstandarte halftracks give some idea of what has happened to the magnificent divisions of a year before.

An SdKfz 250/7 ISPW is seen here being followed by an SdKfz 223 four wheel radio car, through the ruins of a South Russian town. The halftrack is unusual in that it is in overall Panzer Grey, indicating that it was probably forwarded from a depot or training unit during the Winter under a coat of washable White camouflage, which has since worn and been rained off. There simply has not been time to repaint it the standard Sand Yellow. [Bundesarchiv]

A lineup of SdKfz 251s move once again back into the fight. Led by a 251/9 "Stummel" support vehicle, the rest appear to be standard 251/1 ausf Ds. All are in a Sand Yellow base coat with a scruffy covering of Red Brown or dirt or both over it. [National Archives]

Two views of the vehicles of a rarely photographed unit, 16.SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Divsion "Reichsführer-SS" (RFSS), named after Himmler, which fought most of the war in Italy.

Much of RFSS's equipment, as might be expected to a unit formed this late in the war in the territory of a wavering ally, was "liberated" Italian. Here two troopers ride an AS 37 scout car still in its Italian Yellow and Green camouflage. [Bundesarchiv]

The armored element of RFSS was its StuG-Abt. A StuG III ausf G of the battalion is seen here dockside in a coastal city, probably during transport to the Anzio area where it faced the US landings, early 1944. The Black SS runes, also on the AS 37, are the only discernable unit marking. The national insignia is curious, having an extra Black outline. [Bundesarchiv]

Having wasted its strength in a year of desperate defensive struggles at the Mius, at Krivoy Rog and Kirovograd, Totenkopf was withdrawn to Poland to the Kovel region, to join Wiking and to refit. This photo, taken after the completion of the Kovel battle in April 1944, shows the vehicles with which it was fought, Panther ausf As and horse-drawn carts. The tank in the foreground is finished in the three-color scheme, and extremely rare for Totenkopf vehicles at this stage of the war, the divisional insignia on the glacis plate. [Bundesarchiv]

Upon its escape from Korsun, Wiking was sent to the Kovel region in Poland. There it was re-equipped one more time with at least eight companies of Panther ausf As. Each of these companies adopted a distinctive pattern of two or three color camouflage.

"411" of the fourth company is primarily Red Brown in color, with Olive Green and Sand Yellow stripes.

"231" is mainly Sand Yellow with broad bands of the other two colors. The vehicle is covered with a rough coat of Zimmerit anti-magnetic paste. [Bundesarchiv]

"522", a fifth company Panther, has a light even spray of Red Brown mottling over the Sand Yellow base.

The Russian probes at Kovel in March 1943 brought Wiking back into the battle again.

Another of Wiking's Panthers is seen in a probably posed, but believable, battle shot. The tank, number "635", is overall Sand Yellow with broad brush strokes of Red Brown and Olive Green. If this is an actual combat photo, the grenadier is a little close to the Panther for comfort. [Bundesarchiv]


The panzer-grenadiers of 12.Kompanie Germania regiment pause by a burning building in Kovel. The SdKfz 251/1 in the background is numbered in Red with White outline. The grenadiers in the left foreground are in shirtsleeve order.

Some well known shots that deserve repetition because they depict a well known unit. SS-sPz-Abt 501. This was a unit formed around a cadre of tank aces from Leibstandarte. It was a corps-level heavy tank detachment attached to 1.SS-Panzer-Korps. The crossed keys emblem denotes its derivation from LAH.

Michel Wittman, the most famous of the aces, is seen here, in the Black uniform, along with his four crewmen. The tanks and crews of sPz-Abt 501, and Wittmann in particular, were prime targets for photographers. That may explain the brand new appearance of all the uniforms.

A Tiger of sPz-Abt 501 tows another that broke down during a training exercise. The lead vehicle is an extremely late Tiger ausf E. Note the all-steel road wheels. [Bundesarchiv]

An SdKfz 1/20 VW Schwimmwagen follows a Sand Yellow and Green Tiger of sPz-Abt 501 past the church of a French town. [Bundesarchiv]

Two views of the interesting uniforms worn by crewmen of Hitlerjugend (HJ) tanks. The ability of German industry to produce the camouflage clothing required by the Waffen-SS, at a time when it was more than doubling in size, was far eclipsed by demand. This led, in the case of the divisions refitting or forming in the West, to the frequent acquisition of non-standard items of dress. The Italians proved to be a particularly useful source.

An excellent shot of the commander of an HJ Panther. His tanker's tunic has been manufactured to German specifications from Italian camouflage cloth. [Bundesarchiv]

A top his late-model PzKpfw IV, this HJ tanker wears a uniform with a particularly convoluted history. It is a complete set of German U-boat leathers. Apparently they had been made for the Italian Navy but went into storage when it surrendered. Due to bureaucratic mix-ups, they never reverted back to the Kriegsmarine, and rather than let them go to waste, they were commandeered by Hitlerjugend. Nevertheless, one has to wonder about their practicality as a tanker's outfit. [Bundesarchiv]

Allied air superiority played havoc with German transport in the West. On this page are three examples of the extensive use of natural camouflage on vehicles both at rest and in transit. There can be no definite unit identification of the vehicles, though the one to left has been associated with Hohenstaufen around Arnhem, and the other two with HJ during the Normandy campaign. The vehicles are:

an SdKfz 11 three ton halftrack, draped in net which holds considerable foliage,

a late-model PzKpfw IV cover with branches and parked in some bushes and

a column of heavily camouflaged StuG III ausf Gs, being passed by a civilian-style passenger car, under the protection of tall trees. [Bundesarchiv]

A rare opportunity to see four views of the same vehicle and its crew, in this case a Panther ausf G of LAH in Paris, immediately prior to the invasion. The shots above and below show the vehicle passing the Arc de Triomphe and parked in front of a lottery sign. Of interest is the camouflage, which is patches of Red Brown surrounded by Green on a Sand Yellow base, and the total lack of markings except for national cross. The views to the right show three of the crew, one in the Black Panzer uniform, one with the standard camouflage panzer coveralls over Black shirt and pants and one in a new looking two piece tanker's suit made from Italian camouflage cloth. Note that all wear the low shoes without gaiters. [Bundesarchiv]

Disaster: Summer 1944 - Spring 1945

June brought the quiet late Spring of 1944 to an end. The battles were beginning that would lead inevitably to Germany's collapse. 6 June saw the Allied Landings at Normandy, 22 June the launching of the long-awaited Russian attack on Armee-Gruppe Mitte. From then until the end, the units of the Waffen-SS would be nearly continuously engaged. Refits would henceforth be infrequent, and inadequate. Inevitably the ability of even the SS to halt, much less drive back, the enemies crowding ever closer, began to dwindle. Toward the end, in spite of new divisions being authorized wholesale (up to a total of 38 or 45, depending on the reckoning used), the total power of the Waffen-SS continued to wane. There simply was not enough manpower or equipment to bring the "original" divisions up to strength, much less any of the newer ones. Despite continuing the struggle up to the final days, the divisions of the SS were powerless to do more than watch the final collapse of their world.

A frequently mis-identified photograph, this shows a Kfz 1/20 VW Schwimmwagen of SS-sPz-Abt 501 driving down a road on which there is a PzKpfw IV of Panzer-Lehr on the left and a knocked out British Cromwell on the right.

The Normandy invasion found the four SS divisions in the West widely separated. LAH was in Belgium, near Enghien as immediate reserve in the Pas de Calais area; Hitlerjugend [HJ] was near Dreux, due west of Paris, closest to Normandy; Gotz von Berlichingen (GvB) was at Thouars, south of the Loire", and Das Reich was at Cahors, in the Bordeaux region, nearly at the Spanish border. The German reaction was to the invasion immediate. HJ, being the closest, was ordered to make a rapid counterattack, aimed at driving the invaders back into the sea. The afternoon of D-Day and the next morning "Panzer" Meyer's tanks and grenadiers had some local success against the Canadians, but lack of experience and lack of co-operation with the neighboring 21.Panzer-Division (and in the opinion of some, lack of ability on Meyer's part) precluded any permanent gains. This was the beginning of a near-stalemate that was to last almost two months. For that time, the Germans, and the bocage country, limited the Allies to minimal and extremely costly gains.

One by one the SS divisions were engaged. Within days both Das Reich and GvB were in line against the US forces at the Western edge of the beachhead, between Coutance and St. Lo. And six days after the invasion, realizing that the forces available were insufficient, the German command ordered Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg from the Kovel area in Poland to the West at top speed. By 29 June both divisions were in line, in conjunction with HJ on the Odon. On 11 July, LAH was finally released from reserve, entering the battle on the Falaise road south of Caen.

Two views of Kfz 1 VW Kubelwagens of Hitierjugend.

The Kubelwagen is seen here following a line of HJ vehicles on the way to the front. Leading is a Panther, followed by an SdKfz 250/1 ISPW and two motorcycles. Of interest is the divisional insignia on the VW's right rear fender and the convoy marking, instructing the following driver to stay back 100 meters. [National Archives]

A group of unhappy HJ troopers observe the craftmanship of Allied "Jabo" pilots. The Kubelwagen, which is Sand Yellow with Olive Green overspray and considerable mud, still has the shipping stencil visible on its door. Note the wide variety of uniform worn by the troopers. [Bundesarchiv]

The battles around the Normandy beachhead continued fiercely, and relatively successfully from the German point of view, for nearly two months. On the Western edge, Das Reich and GvB had held US forces to virtually no gain. In the East around Caen, where the Allies made their big pushes, the other four divisions had given some ground, but in general contained the attacks. On 12 and 26 June and 18 July the British and Canadians launched major offensives aimed at breaking through to the interior. In each case, the attacks were held. On 25 July the Americans had their turn, with different results. After a massive air and artillery bombardment, US infantry divisions broke through at St. Lo, opening the way for Patton's tanks. Das Reich and GvB were both roughly handled in the attacks, pushed aside and temporarily encircled at Coutance. In a fierce battle lasting 2 days, the two divisions cut across the lines of the American breakthrough, and while they were not nearly strong enough to seal off the breach, they were at least able to save most of their men and equipment, linking up with German lines at Mortain.

But the problems for the Germans in France were just beginning. The German Command, from Hitler on down, now began a series of incredibly bad moves that markedly worsened an already threatening situation. With Patton circling behind and the British still pushing in front, the Germans were being forced into an extremely vulnerable, narrow pocket between Falaise and Mortain. Two fairly obvious solutions presented themselves, either withdrawal from the pocket or attacking out of it toward Avranches, aimed at cutting off Patton. The Germans did neither for ten days. When an attack on Avranches was approved, it was too late and insufficiently strong. At the same time the position at Mortain was growing daily more untenable, the order was given to advance. Leibstandarte, which had been ordered first one direction then another for the last week, joined up with Das Reich, GvB and the Army's 2. and 116. Panzer-Divisions on 6 August 1944 for the attack (Unternehmen "Luttich"). The Americans, expecting just such a maneuver, held the Germans to virtually no gain. (The fact that 1.SS-Panzer-Korps, LAH and HJ, could field a total of 35 tanks while the US 2nd Armored, which was only one of the divisions facing "Luttich", had 250 must also be considered a factor.)

The attack, having been held, left the Germans in a worse position than had it never been launched, with three of their strongest divisions to the West of Mortain. They could do little more than watch Patton and the British attempt to close the trap on them at Falaise-Argentan, 30 miles to the East. In all, 19 German Divisions were nearly encircled. At this point, the only remaining question was how many, if any, of those divisions would be able to escape the trap. What followed was a race against time. The Germans began pulling some divisions out immediately (GvB being pulled out on 15 August) using others to attempt to keep the doors of the trap open for those still in the pocket. LAH and Frundsberg were pulled out soon thereafter, the first towards the Siegfried Line in the Saar, the other toward Compiegne. HJ, Das Reich and Hohenstaufen remained in the Falaise area at the North edge of the pocket. In spite of their best efforts, Falaise fell on 17 August. By the next day, the trap was closed behind the last of the German forces. The escape had been made, but again at a terrible cost in equipment. The remaining divisions, weakened by three months of fighting, fought unsuccessful rearguard actions across France. The Allied drive across Europe came to a halt at the end of August more from a lack of gasoline than stiffening German resistance. By the end of August, only HJ was still in combat attempting to hold up the Americans between Amiens and the Belgian border. The divisions of the Waffen-SS that had been engaged in the West were in appalling condition. Das Reich was down to 15 tanks, HJ to ten and LAH had none at all.

A still from some well-known movie footage, showing Panther ausf As of HJ moving through Caen on D-Day. The building in the background which is frequently cropped off, identifies the exact location of this shot. [Bundesarchiv]

In the east, 4.SS-Panzer-Korps had been in action, with some success since the middle of July. By the end of August, Totenkopf and Wiking were fighting in front of Warsaw, halting the Russians at the Vistula. Into October, the two divisions were involved in fighting off fierce enemy attacks in front of the city and, less gloriously, putting down a rebellion inside it. By the end of that month, the pressure had eased to the point that 4.SS-Panzer-Korps was again pulled out of line into reserve.

In the West there was no such lull. While the armored SS divisions were behind the lines undergoing refit, the Allies brought the war directly to them. Having arrived at Arnhem on 7 September, 2.SS-Panzer-Korps took up positions around that city. On 14 September, Hohenstaufen was ordered back into Germany to ease reinforcement. That move had just begun, when the war virtually dropped in the laps of Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg in the form of the 1st British Airborne Division and "Operation Market-Garden." What followed was 12 days of house to house fighting as the intended Allied sweep across the Rhein faltered. Montgomery had intended Arnhem to be relieved in three days. Yet on the twelfth day, 2.SS-Panzer-Korps was mopping the last pockets of resistance East of the Rhein as the Allies finally closed the river from the West. Having been interrupted at the beginning of their refit period, the divisions of 2. SS-Panzer-Korps were now split up and sent to the rear to continue the process. Frundsberg was dispatched to the vicinity of Geilenkirchen. Hohenstaufen reformed the corps with Das Reich in the Schnee-Eifel.

With the failure of "Market-Garden", Hitler considered that the Allies were in a vulnerable position. He perceived, or thought he did, that the enemy's lines were overextended and too lightly held in the Ardennes. That site was also attractive because it was the location of the dramatic breakthrough in 1940. Perhaps it would work again. The plan was to push through the weakly held Ardennes Front, drive on the Meuse and beyond, toward Antwerp. If that port could be captured, the British-Canadian 21st Army Group would be trapped, cut off from supply and forced into a second, larger, even more disastrous Dunkirk.

The plan had some chance of success, although slight, and if successful would certainly ease the pressure in the West for months to come. But for success, a number of conditions had to be met, among them, suppression of Allied air superiority, sufficient fuel supply and rapid "Blitzkrieg" like movement. These conditions were not to be fulfilled. The Luftwaffe simply could not challenge Allied mastery in the skies. Fog did ground enemy planes for a few days, but once that lifted, the SS Armor found itself extremely vulnerable to P-47s and Typhoons. Fuel supply proved inadequate, so much so that on a number of occasions tactically favorable moves had to be foregone in the search for Allied fuel dumps. But, perhaps most serious, the leadership of the "Blitzkrieg" days was not there. Guderian and Manstein had been replaced by Dietrich and Peiper. Even the best of the SS commanders, Hausser and Steiner, were not present.

Hitler Jugend

Of "Sepp" Dietrich, who had risen from command of the tiny "Stabswache" to leadership of 6.Panzer-Armee, Baron von der Heydte, commander of German paratroop forces for the Ardennes offensive said:

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