ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
SS ARMOR. A Pictorial History of the Armored Formations of the Waffen-SS
He had all the qualities of a first-class NCO of the old German Army; he was personally brave, tough and disciplined and he cared for his men as though they were children... He was feared, respected, and even loved, but he was certainly not a commander.
And further, he was drinking; never drunk, but not quite sober. When he gave orders, they were frequently imprecise. Among the orders that he gave his point troops was a particularly ambivalent one; "No time is to be wasted in the matter of prisoners". To von der Heydte this meant that any captured enemy soldiers were to be disarmed and left for following troops. To Peiper, it meant something quite different. Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper was 28 years old, handsome and brave, and utterly ruthless. He had gained a reputation for leading successful, if quite costly, counterattacks during the fierce defensive fighting on the Eastern Front. To Peiper and to the men of Kampfgruppe Peiper, the armored battlegroup of "LAH" entrusted with the task of leading the breakthrough to the Meuse, Dietrich's order meant license to treat captured enemy troops as they would have in the East. There, prisoners were often not taken. Before the offensive fizzled out at the end of the year, Peiper's men would be guilty of a number of attrocities, most notably the massacre of 86 US prisoners at Malmedy.
An SdKfz 251/7 engineer's vehicle of HJ complete with bridging equipment, is seen here under heavy foliage camouflage, halted by the side of a French road. Note the Black numerals which have been oversprayed, and the divisional insignia. [National Archives]
Four of the six SS armored divisions that had fought at Normandy were assigned to 6. Panzer-Armee for the Ardennes offensive. LAH and HJ of 1. SS-Panzer-Korps were assigned to the first wave of the planned assault. On 16 December 1944, they were to punch through the lines held by green US divisions, for which task they were given considerable extra armor. Das Reich and Hohenstaufen [2. SS-Panzer-Korps] were held back in reserve, to be released to continue the advance if the first was slowed. The SS divisions were given the Northern and shorter route to the Meuse. They had ten miles less to cover (48 vs. 58) than the six Wehrmacht Panzer divisions assigned to the attack.
The offensive opened on 16 December, with less than overwhelming success. HJ, in particular, was halted along its entire front. Leibstandarte, especially K-Gr Peiper, had more luck, breaking through and starting to exploit to the West. 72 hours later HJ was still being held up, LAH was 20 miles to the West and out of fuel.
The men who fought the battles at Normandy, winning and losing, and some dying.
Three grenadiers of HJ, looking very boyish now, are in the hands of Canadian troops, having been captured at Carpiquet airfield, 4 July 1944. Note the mix-and-match camouflage patterns of their uniforms. There was no standardization of dress at this stage of the conflict. [Public Archives Canada]
Hitler's offense was in a shambles. At this point, several days earlier than planned, Hohenstaufen was committed to the fight around Poteau, where parts of the US 7th Armored Division had been holding up the Southern sector of advance by Leibstandarte. The next day, 20 December, saw HJ swung South in an attempt to outflank the US positions, with no more success than before. On the same day Das Reich was committed, again much earlier than planned and not on the SS front which was stalled, but on the front of the Army's 560. Volkgrenadier Division at Samree to the South. By the 23rd, HJ was pulled out of line after being bled white, having pushed a grand total of seven miles into US lines. K-Gr Peiper, which had been stalled at Stoumont, first by lack of fuel and then by US resistance since the 19th, and cut off since the 21st, was given permission to abandon its vehicles and pull back. Hohenstaufen had reached Salrachateau, the farthest point of advance on the SS Front, but was now stalled still less than halfway to the Meuse. Das Reich was the only SS division still moving. Attacking repeatedly to the North in the direction of Huy, attempting to regain the original SS line of advance, it was forced Westward and eventually halted by a scratch force of US Armored Divisions. The Americans held the high ground north of the Marche-Manay road against the German attacks for six days. On the 25th Das Reich took Manay, but was unable to advance beyond. The next day the attack was to the West, and the following day, having been reinforced by Hohenstaufen and a grenadier regiment from HJ, at Erezee another five miles Westward. On 29 December, after a final unsuccessful thrust on the road to Hotton, the attack was called off. The remainder of HJ and LAH, which had been directed against Bastogne on the 27th, were now joined by the formations retreating from the West.
New Year found the four divisions which had been involved in the Ardennes operation assembled around Bastogne, making the final assaults on the town and trying to halt the move to Patton's Third Army up from the South. All had paid a price for their attacks, HJ was less than half strength, but none would be allowed the time to rest and refit. Crises were developing elsewhere that needed the attention of this once potent spearhead of the Third Reich.
The new year found the military situation deteriorating on all fronts. In the West, the failure of the Ardennes Offensive left the Germans in a weakened condition all along the front. Units that had been shorted on men and equipment to provide the extra punch for the spearhead divisions, now had to face Allied counterattacks. And those which had taken part in the offensive had taken losses which could no longer be made good. Frundsberg near Aachen and GvB in the Saar had seen some fighting, but were in much better condition than the four around Bastogne. RFSS was still falling back in Italy, but the most serious problem had developed in Hungary. There, in mid-December, a Russian offensive had trapped Florian Geyer and the rest of 9.SS-Korps (the incomplete 22. SS-Kav-Div. and the Army's Feldherrnhalle and 13. PanzerDiv) in Budapest.
The first reaction was to use SS divisions to free the trapped SS Corps. The first to be moved to Hungary was 4. SS-Panzer-Korps, Totenkopf and Wiking, which had been spending a relatively quiet two months behind the Vistula bridgehead in Poland. This move was to prove disastrous as the German line in front of Warsaw collapsed under Russian attacks immediately after they were pulled out. 4.SS-Panzer-Korps had been the only reserve on that front. When the Russian attack was finally halted on the Oder, the enemy was almost within sight of Berlin. And most tragically, these last sound SS divisions were wasted in the attack on Budapest.
Hitler's pride declared that the Hungarian capital must be held. Yet had a link up been achieved, it wouldn't have helped the overall German position in any way. The Allies must have been pleased to find that Hitler's best divisions were bogged down on what can only be called a minor front, while the German homeland was about to be invaded from both sides. They did not even succeed in relieving the city. Having gotten as close as the airport on 11 January 1945, Totenkopf was inexplicably sent on a pointless move around the North of the city, never getting as close again. By the end of the month, they were being driven towards the Southwest in some disorder by powerful Russian counterattacks. Not only had Budapest not been relieved but 4.SS-Panzer-Korps was in dire shape. But rather than accept the loss of Hungary and pull all useable troops out, at the end of January Hitler insisted upon another counterattack to regain the lost territory, aimed again at linking up with Budapest. In pursuit of this hopeless task, SS divisions were pulled away from the West, where they formed the only significant reserve. The results were predictable. Instead of being in position to contest the Allied Rhein crossing, they were in Hungary wasting their last strength on a false hope.
After the failure in the Ardennes, the SS divisions that had been involved were pulled back to refit areas. They were not to remain there long enough to achieve much. On 10 January Leibstandarte had been pulled back from Bastogne, being posted to the Bonn area. HJ, at about the same time, had been moved from Bastogne to the west of Koln. Both divisions, on about the 20th, were ordered to proceed to the area north of Budapest where the Russians had broken through across the Hron River. In a series of attacks beginning 5 February, they were successful in forcing the enemy back to the East bank. At the beginning of February, Das Reich followed a similar pattern, being pulled from Bastogne at the end of January and moved almost immediately to the area West of Budapest to which the divisions of 4.SS-Panzer-Korps had been forced by enemy pressure. All this activity, however, failed to achieve its primary objective, saving the encircled 9.SS-Korps in Budapest. On 12 February the defense of the city collapsed. Of the 50,000 men who were trapped in the city two months before, only 800 broke through the German lines (and only 170 of them were SS).
The end of February 1945 saw the last desperate moves by a confused and overwhelmed German High Command. Frundsberg which had been roughly handled in three months of hard fighting near Aachen, in the Saar and near Strasburg, was nevertheless transferred to Pomerania East of the Oder facing the Russians. No sooner had it taken position that it was brushed aside by the massive Russian attacks of early March. Likewise Hohenstaufen, after hard fighting around Houfalize in which most of its remaining equipment was lost, was hastily transferred to the East in early March in a futile attempt to shore up the collapsing position in Hungary. The net effect of these moves from West to East had been to weaken the West without helping the East. The four SS armored divisions in Hungary, instead of being withdrawn to bolster the German positions in Western Poland, were launched on 6 March on a last, futile offensive aimed again at Budapest.
The other side of the coin, a group of GIs are glumly awaiting transfer to a POW camp, guarded by two Das Reich soldiers in the vincinity of Carentan.
The attack, was code named "Fruhlingserwachen" (Morning Watch), from the northshore of the Plattensee toward the Danube. After some initial success, the offensive ground to a halt, stopped by mud and stubborn Russian resistance. The last ounce having been wrung from these tired formations, all that remained was retreat, back to Vienna, and when that couldn't be held, further North and West.
And inevitably there was the surrender as one by one they passed into captivity; LAH, HJ, RFSS, Hohenstaufen and Totenkopf in Austria, Das Reich, Frundsberg and Wiking in Czechoslovakia, Prinz Eugen in the Balkans; GvB in Southeastern Germany; and Nordland in Berlin itself. No matter how they might have been employed, ultimately these divisions could not have stemmed the overwhelming flood of Allied and Russian power that broke over the failing Third Reich. In that last year they rapidly became mere shadows of their former strength, reflecting now only from a great distance the glory they had once believed to be theirs.
The ultimate price, an Unterscharführer of Leibstandarte, left behind in Falaise, was flushed out and killed by advancing Canadian troops, 16 August. [Public Archives Canada]
Three views of the retreat across France. Not surprisingly, these photographs are increasingly of Allied origin as the Germans were too busy to document their disasters.
A Sherman of Patton's Third Army moves to exploit the break-through West of St. Lo. On its way it passes two abandoned PzKpfw IV ausf Js of Das Reich. This division and HJ were among the last SS divisions to continue using divisional markings on their vehicles. Note the faintly visible, probably Yellow, Kampfrune on the left rear plate of both tanks. [US Army]
An SdKfz 251/9 support SPW and a StuG III ausf G of Das Reich are being inspected by a Canadian soldier where they were abandoned at Elbeuf. It was here at the Seine that the last efforts were made to prevent the loss of all of France. And it was here that Das Reich lost the last of its vehicles. [Public Archives Canada]
An M7 Priest passes the last resting place of Iron Cross winner, Unterscharführer Josef Richtfeld. There must have been enough time to produce the elaborate fence around his grave site before his division, GvB, was forced again into retreat. [US Army]
The war in the East continued with the same disastrous result. In Poland, the Germans were continually pushed back in spite of the best efforts of Wiking and Totenkopf.
Two views of Wiking Panthers moving across the flatlands of East Prussia and Western Poland. [Bundesarchiv]
A rare shot of rarely seen troops, SS-Fallschirmjäger, only a few regiments of which were raised late in the war. While some had received jump training, they were never used in their intended role. Passing in the background is a StuG III ausf G. Note the late-style return rollers. [Bundesarchiv]
In the North, Nordland fought against overwhelming odds and fell back again and again.
Two Hetzers of Nordland move back into combat, being ridden by troopers of Fallschirmjäger-Rgt 25.
Vielfachwerferbatterie 521, attached to Nordland, employed a hybrid vehicle, Opel Maultiers with captured Russian Katyusha rocket launchers. The armored halftracks are painted Sand Yellow with a heavy overspray of Olive Green.
The last Winter of the war in the East found Wiking in Hungary hoping to stop one more Russian thrust. These vehicles are in overall Sand Yellow. Supplies of White paint never made their way to the troops this last winter. An interesting column of vehicles can be seen here. Next to the Kfz 1 VW Kubelwagen is a column of light APCs. The first two are late model SdKfz 250/1 ISPWs followed by an SdKfz 250/9 ISPW [2 cm] with a light armored car turret. To the left is a column of Maultier halftrack lorries. [Bundesarchiv]
Operation "Market-Garden" dropped the British 1st Airborne Division into Arhhem and in the midst of 2.SS-Panzer-Korps. Montgomery's plans went wrong from the beginning. Instead of the three days it was supposed to take the Allied ground forces to reach the Rhein and link up with the paratroopers, it took 12, by which time the 1st Airborne had been overwhelmed.
Three grenadiers of Hohenstaufen were happy to relieve the two Red Devils in the back of their Willys MB Jeep. The vehicle is entirely as it landed by glider, in overall Olive Drab with British markings. [Bundesarchiv]
Driving their way into the city, StuG Ills of Hohenstaufen pass their own casualties from earlier in the battle.
The Ardennes offensive was Hitler's last gamble in the West, one with some chance of success. But there were too many ifs. For a few days, the Germans were able to advance well in some places, but fuel and the weather brought those first victorious thrusts to a standstill.
A company command group of K-Gr Peiper, dismounted from their late-model SdKfz 250 ISPW, inspects a crossroad between Malmedy and St. Vith. Note that the impracticality of trying to tuck the heavy camouflage pants into the short late-war issue boats has led to the habit of wearing the Dants unbloused.
Appearing more than a year older since we last saw him, Standartenführer Joachim Peiper, commander of the armored spearhead of the whole offensive, is seen here.
Panzergrenadiers on top, another late-war vehicle is seen here. This time it is a Pz IV/70 Panzerjager of HJ. Note the nearly pristine condition of the ambush scheme paint job. [US Army]
Another rare view of a rare late war vehicle. Being the first to receive new equipment as it came into service, SS units were frequently the only ones to receive some just-developed vehicles. In this case it is an SdKfz 234/1 Tatra "tropical" armored car. This shot must be from the first days of the campaign as it shows the eight wheel carrying a load of still smiling HJ grenadiers. [US Army]
A motorcyclist of HJ delivers a message to some Luftwaffe Fallschirmjüger who are riding an HJ Tiger ausf B King Tiger. Of interest is the evidence of the carefully sprayed ambush scheme visible on the rear of the Tiger II. Also the U-boat leathers being worn by the motorcyclist. This was a much more appropriate use for this all leather suit than as a tanker's uniform. [US Army]
An SS trooper is seen discussing the world situation with a disarmed Hungarian. There is little reason for them to smile. This photo is believed to be from one of the last series of propaganda shots attempting to show German strength. It was probably taken at Stuhlweissenburg [Szekesfehervar] west of Budapest, just prior to the last offensive, Unternehmen Frühlingserwachen [Morning Watch], The Tiger II in the background is not an SS vehicle, although it may belong to an associated Army sPz-Abt.
Having withdrawn all the way from Oranienbaum to Berlin, Nordland fought its last battles around the grave of its Führer. It died too. Among the last of its vehicles, this late SdKfz 250/1 ISPW is seen in the streets of Berlin. It was painted overall Sand Yellow with a hasty Red Brown overspray and a great deal of dirt. The division fought on for a few more days, surrendering in Charlottenberg, just West of the city.
Other Waffen-SS troops ended the war as victims of the outrage that followed discovery of the system of atrocities they had aided. Here can be seen the bodies of grenadiers of a detached battalion of Wiking which had taken over the defense of KL Dachau in Bavaria from camp guards. When the defenders of such camps surrendered, those who had not been killed in the battle were frequently executed by the Allies or turned over to the justice of the ex-prisoners. There were few survivors.
A fitting final shot. A Kfz 70, probably a Steyr 1500A of Hitlerjugend burns by the side of a French road. That fire marks the end of a system that witnessed great glory and committed atrocious horrors. And it marks the end of the fighting units of the Waffen-SS that were to the world the symbol of its armed strength. [Bundesarchiv]