By 1935, the Leibstandarte regiment had been joined by the Germania and Deutschland regiments. They operated under the Verfugungstruppe, which was a unit of divisional strength. Hitler had made it clear that the Verfugungstruppe was “a standing armed unit exclusively at my disposal.” It was to take its place in the army’s order of battle. The para-military Totenkpofverbande (Death’s Head Unit) had the task “to clear up special tasks of a police nature” – Hitler. However, in 1935, any idea of battle seemed a long way off in Nazi Germany.

The Verfugungstruppe trained as if it was a part of the Wehrmacht. Men in it trained with live ammunition in full military manoeuvres. However, when war broke out in September 1939, the military future of the Waffen-SS still hung in the balance. Hitler remained cautious that, untried in combat, it would take heavy casualties and lose any credibility that it had. This proved to be the case when Germany attacked Poland. The Verfugungstruppe suffered heavy losses, despite the ultimate victory, thus confirming what the Wehrmacht’s hierarchy had said all along – it simply did not have the expertise to fight.

The massive success of the Wehrmacht from 1939 to 1941 kept the SS in a secondary position with regards to military matters in the field of combat. With the success that the Wehrmacht had, not even Himmler could question its effectiveness or argue that the SS – being more ideologically pure – would do better.

To make up the losses from the Polish campaign, Himmler created two more divisions. However, he could not risk starting these from scratch, as they would be equally as inexperienced as the units that had attacked Poland. Therefore, he used men from the Totenkpofverbande as they were volunteers and already trained in the use of infantry weapons. Their ranks were swelled with uniformed policemen.

The field units of the SS were known as the Waffen-SS. In the attack on Poland in September 1939, their impact had been at great cost to themselves. They made up for this with their input into the attack on France in the spring of 1940. Here the Waffen-SS was very successful. Hitler awarded six SS commanders the Knight’s Cross and ordered Himmler to create another division. Hitler attributed this success to a “fierce will – the sense of superiority personified.”

The new division was called Wiking. It was to be filled with volunteers from the countries conquered by Germany in their attacks on Western Europe. In several countries there were established fascist parties – Quisling’s in Norway, Degrelle’s in Belgium and Mussert’s in Holland. 50,000 Dutchmen, 40,000 Belgians (Flemish and Walloons), 20,000 Frenchmen and 6,000 Norwegians and Danes enlisted in the Waffen-SS before the war came to an end.

“We must attract all the Nordic blood in the world to us so that never again will it fight against us.” 


A new reserve of manpower came in 1941 with the attack on the Balkans.

“The Balkans was the home of the largest Volksdeutsch (ethnic German) community in Europe, over 1,500,000 strong. The ingathering of these peoples had long been a Nazi ambition and was a constant theme of Hitler’s.” 

John Keegan

By 1944, the Waffen-SS included 150,000 Volksdeutsch, nearly a quarter of its strength.

In mid-1941, on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the Waffen-SS numbered just 160,000. It had six divisions (Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Totenkopf, Polizei, Wiking and Nordland). It was earmarked to play a major part in the attack on Russia and Himmler had made it plain what was expected on them. In a speech to Waffen-SS men just three weeks before Barbarossa began, he said:

“This is an ideological battle and a struggle of races. Here stands a world as we conceived it – beautiful, decent, socially equal (and) full of culture; this is what our Germany is like. On the other side stands a population of 180,000,000, a mixture of races, whose very names are unpronounceable and whose physique is such that one can only shoot them down without mercy or compassion. When you fight over there in the east, you are carrying on the same struggle against the same sub-humanity, the same inferior races, that at one time appeared under the name of Huns, another time of Magyars, another time of Tartars, and still another time under the name of Genghis Khan and the Mongols. Today they appear as Russians under the political banner of Bolshevism.” 

Hitler had already told his Wehrmacht generals that the attack on Russia was to be carried out with “unprecedented, unrelenting and unmerciful harshness.” The Waffen-SS made its name in Russia for its unflinching resolve in attack and its cruelty to prisoners and civilians. It was also during the Russian campaign that Hitler started a major expansion of the Waffen-SS so that it went from six divisions to nearly forty; 200,000 men to over 1,000,000.

It was decided to give the Waffen-SS the best equipment, as they seemed best equipped to use it. Few in the Wehrmacht queried this decision.

However, after Stalingrad, Hitler took more extreme decisions. In January 1942, he authorised Himmler to create new Waffen-SS units. However, the manpower was simply not available and young native Germans were conscripted – despite the protests of parents and from the Wehrmacht. The original pedigree of the Himmler’s idea for the SS was being diluted – he wanted ideologically pure volunteers; those who were willing to fight and die for the cause. Now, the new units were being made up of conscripts. To go with this, Waffen-SS units were made up of men from Eastern Europe. They went completely in the face of Nazi racial purity but they were needed to fight the Partisans who were becoming more and more successful in the east. The sole qualification to join was a hatred of communism. The Waffen-SS was to include Croats, Albanians, Russians, Ukrainians, and Caucasians etc. Over 100,000 Ukrainians responded to Himmler’s call in April 1943.

However, few of the foreign divisions fought well. The Baltic divisions did, until the Russians overran their homelands. The XIV Galician Division (the Ukrainians) suffered badly at its first battle at Brody-Tarnov in June 1944. The Balkan Muslim SS units mutinied in training, did little good against Tito’s partisans and were disbanded at the end of 1944. The Cossack SS units simply disappeared as the war neared its end and proved of little use to Hitler.

The lack of input by the so-called foreign legions in the Waffen-SS in the eastern campaign tends to distract from the work done by the German Waffen-SS. After the disaster at Stalingrad, it was the Waffen-SS that restored the front after Kharkov. As a result of this, Hitler ordered the creation of ‘fire-brigades’ – Waffen-SS units that were held in reserve and went into battle at the point on the front where it seemed that the front might be in danger. The power of senior SS officers greatly increased after the Bomb Plot of July 1944. Here senior army officers were implicated – the SS was not. Therefore, Hitler put more and more trust in the SS.

As the German military retreated from Russia, two aspects of the SS became clear. Few disputed the valour of the Waffen-SS. In the fields, they had proved to be an effective military machine. However, as the Russians advanced towards Germany, the work of the Totenkopf on the civilian population became apparent.

In the western campaign, six SS divisions fought at Normandy. The stand by the Hitler Jugend at Falaise allowed 20 army divisions to retreat to the West Wall. By now, however, Hitler had lost all faith in the Wehrmacht. He appointed Sepp Dietrich to lead the counter-attack in the Ardennes – the Battle of the Bulge. Here Waffen-SS units fought so well that they pushed back the Allies. Their advance was stopped by lack of fuel for their tanks. However, it was at Malmedy that the SS showed its other side when American POW’s were shot dead by the SS. After the war, Leibstandarte SS officer Joachim Peiper was sentenced to death for his part in this massacre, later reduced to life in prison.

The legacy of the Waffen-SS is less than straightforward. On many occasions they proved themselves an elite fighting force – be it in the drive to Dunkirk or the attack on Russia in Operation Barbarossa. However, the unsavoury aspects of war that are linked, rightly or wrongly, to the Waffen-SS have tainted this success.

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