When German troops marched into Austria, they were accompanied by a motorized battalion of the Leibstandarte; and in the same year an energetic and Machiavellian 42-year-old, named Gottlob Berger, assumed command of the SS Hauptampt, responsible amongst other duties for recruitment. Berger immediately spotted that three previously untapped sources of manpower were open to SS-VT recruitment: the Totenkopfverbände, the war-time reserves of the same organisation, and a large proportion of the ordinary police (Ordnungspolizei). Meanwhile, Hitler had already agreed to the formation of a third SS-VT Standarte-Der Führer, mainly composed of Austrians, and based in Vienna and Klagenfurt. Now, on August 17 1938, a new Führer decree stated that, in time of war, elements of the Totenkopfverbände would reinforce the SS-VT. From these provisions emerged the first four of what were to become known in 1940 as the Waffen-SS divisions: the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Reich, Totenkopf and Polizei, plus the nucleus of a fifth, Wiking. These, particularly the Leibstandarte AH, Reich (later Das Reich) and Wiking, were the premier Waffen-SS formations.

At the beginning of the war the Leibstandarte comprised 3,700 men in four infantry battalions with supporting 7.5 cm infantry gun and 3.7 cm anti-tank companies, plus a pioneer and a motor cycle reconnaissance platoon. The three SS-VT Standarten, Deutschland, Germania und Der Führer, were each of similar strength and composition. In addition there were five Totenkopf Standarten, of nowhere near the calibre of the Leibstandarte and SSVT troops: Oberbayern, Brandenburg and Thüringen (organised from the original five Sturmbanne- see above), plus Ostmark, formed in Austria, and Götze (later renamed Heimwehr Danzig), which was specially formed for the invasion of Poland.

Further expansion followed rapidly in the wake of the Polish campaign. Hitler agreed to the increase of the existing armed SS formations into three divisions, with appropriate supporting services; and to increase the strength of the Leibstandarte, initially to that of a reinforced regiment (May 1940), then, after the summer blitzkrieg, to that of a brigade (August 1940).

The three SS-VT Standarten were brought back to Germany for reorganisation, Eicke’s Totenkopf units were similarly expanded and a third division was formed by General-major Karl Pfeffer- Wildenbruch out of, predominantly, Ordnungspolizei personnel-most of whom were neither members of the Nazi party nor the SS!-with a leavening of SSVT and Totenkopfverbände troops.

Following the campaigns in Norway, Denmark, France and the Low Countries, the energetic Berger devised a new way of expanding his master, Himmler’s, Waffen-SS formations (the title had become official on March 2 1940) without violating the OKW restrictions on SS recruitment. In the occupied territories there were many young men bedazzled by the speed and efficiency of the German operations, who had not yet learned the truth of what life was to be like ‘under the jackboot’, and who shared many of National Socialism’s ideals. Himmler had already accepted, as early as 1938, the presence of non-Germans- including Americans, Swedes and Swiss-in the SS. Such men, of Nordic if not Germanic descent, did not offend his racial sensibilities. In September 1940 he said ‘we must attract all the Nordic blood in the world to us, and so deprive our enemies of it, in order that never again will Nordic or Germanic blood fight against us’.

The first non-German SS formation to be organised was the Standarte Nordland, which contained 294 Norwegian and 216 Danish volunteers plus a substantial ‘stiffening’ of German and Volksdeutsche recruits. Shortly afterwards, in, July 1940, sufficient Dutch and Flemish volunteers were available (630) to form the nucleus of a second battalion, named Westland. And at the end of the year the Germania Standarte of the SS-VT was attached to these, together with additional reinforcements, to create a new SS division, originally called Germania, then Wiking.

These Nordic volunteers enjoyed less stringent conditions of service than German recruits, being allowed to join on a ‘hostilities only’ basis instead of for the usual minimum four-year term, and the initial height restriction of 1.65 metres was soon abolished. They received the same pay and wore the same uniforms as members of the regular Waffen-SS, with national distinctions, and were subject to the same laws.

Even this expansion was insufficient once Hitler began seriously planning his invasion of the Soviet Union, first apparently discussed in July 1940 but held in abeyance until it became clear, after Göring’s failure to subdue the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, that Operation Seelöwe-the invasion of Britain-was impractical.

Further recruitment of ethnic volunteers from the occupied territories was, therefore, organised. However, the appeal had to be to nationalism rather than to National Socialism, with the defeat of communism as the aim.

The different classes of foreign volunteers swore different oaths to the normal SS oath quoted above. Germanic volunteers prefaced the oath with the words: ‘I swear to thee, Adolf Hitler, as Germanic Führer, Loyalty and bravery’, the second sentence being the same as in the ordinary oath. Non- Germanic volunteers-for example, Finns-prefaced the oath with the words: ‘I swear to thee, Adolf Hitler, as Führer, Loyalty and bravery’, etc.

The first unit formed from this new category of recruits was the Freiwilligen (literally, ‘free will’, ie, volunteer) Standarte Nordwest, composed of 2,500 Dutch and Flemish volunteers. Shortly afterwards, this was split into two ethnic battalions, Freiwilligenverband Niederlande and Freiwilligenverband Flandern and, after the invasion of Russia, these and other legionary volunteers took a new oath, which was significant in that it committed them solely to the Russian campaign: ‘I swear by God this holy oath that in the struggle against Bolshevism I will unconditionally obey the Commander in Chief of the German armed forces, Adolf Hitler, and as a loyal soldier I am ready, at any time he may wish, to lay down my life for this oath’. Soldiers taking this oath were regarded as being attached to, but not part of, the ‘real’ Waffen-SS, regardless of the valour which many of them showed in the field.

By the end of September 1941, Nordwest had been disbanded and the two battalions each became legions in their own right. Meanwhile, after prolonged inter-governmental wrangling, several hundred Finns with National Socialist leanings had been allowed to join the Waffen-SS, 400 of them fighting with Wiking from the first day of the invasion of Russia. But, in common with many other foreign volunteers, they found that the treatment accorded them by their German instructors and officers was not what they had been led to expect, and by September, again, they had been formed into their own unit, Finnisches Freiwilligen Bataillon der Waffen-SS, although, from early 1942, it became the third battalion of the Nordland regiment, within the Wiking Division.

Recruits were also trickling in from other occupied territories: into the Freikorps Danmark, which was established separately from the Nordland regiment; into the Freiwilligen Legion Norwegen, and into the Freiwilligen Ersatzbataillon SS, the replacement battalion based outside Graz, in Austria. Such recruits were men who were not willing to join the SS totally, but were prepared to fight alongside them against bolshevism.

It is important to realise that the Nordwest and Nordland formations had nothing to do with Kampfgruppe Nord (which had been raised in the spring of 1941 from three new Totenkopf Standarten to serve on the Finnish front) and whose morale and training were so bad that they routed and had to be withdrawn for a full year for reorganisation and retraining before being allowed to take to the field again under the grandiose title SS Gebirgs (mountain) Division Nord. This was the sixth numbered SS division. Chronologically, the seventh and eighth appear in reverse sequence. No 8, eventually named SS Kavallerie Division Florian Geyer, had its beginnings in April of 1941, when an area near Redica in Poland was given over to the training of five then-unallocated Totenkopfstandarten in two Reiter (cavalry) regiments. No 7 was raised by Berger’s son-in-law, Andreas Schmidt, in March 1942 from ethnic Germans, mainly Rumanian, in the Balkans. Named SS Freiwilligen Gebirgs Division Prinz Eugen it, like Florian Geyer, spent most of the war engaged in antipartisan duties, a form of warfare in which atrocities were bound to occur on both sides-and did. It is important to note, however, that many men who ended up in Prinz Eugen and other, later, Balkan SS formations, had little choice in the matter and were either press-ganged by their own governments or by Berger, operating through Heydrich on many occasions. (It is worth also mentioning here, however, in the Balkan context, that Heydrich was assassinated in Prague not because of repressive measures against the Czech population, but because he began restoring-albeit in a limited fashion-civil liberties which the British government saw as a threat to the budding resistance movement.)

As the campaign in Russia waxed and waned, consuming millions of lives in the process, the need for manpower to fuel the German war machine gradually overcame Himmler’s racial scruples further and further, until ultimately he was prepared to accept virtually anyone other than a Jew into associate membership of the Waffen-SS. In the early days of the campaign, the German soldiers were hailed as liberators by tens of thousands in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and by the fiercely independent peoples of the Ukraine. Although the Einsatzgruppen which followed the advancing front line destroyed most peoples’ illusions about Nazi benevolence, eventually no fewer than 200,000 assorted Baits, Ukrainians, Russians and even Balkan Moslems would swell the bloated ranks of Himmler’s martial empire to nearly a million men.

The greatest expansion period of the Waffen-SS, was from 1942-44. Despite severe setbacks during the winter of 1941- 42, the German armies rallied back furiously and drove their front line to the far Caucasus. Apart from the Wiking Division, as we shall see later, the premier Waffen-SS units took little part in this enormous advance, the LSSAH being involved principally in defensive fighting until withdrawn to France for rest and refit in the summer; Das Reich, having suffered very heavy casualties, being withdrawn to Germany even earlier, in March; Totenkopf being equally severely mauled in the Demyansk area but staying in the line until early 1943; while the Polizei Division was withdrawn to the Balkans for internal security duties, Nord was well occupied in the Finnish sector, and Prinz Eugen was still in training. Only Florian Geyer accompanied Wiking, and then mostly under Army Group Centre and in behind-the-lines anti-partisan duties.

The only new division formed during 1942 itself-and that mainly from 18-year-old German conscripts-was the 9th Division Hohenstaufen. However, it took no less than 15 months to work up before being committed to the line, in Poland, in March 1944.

During 1943 another similar German conscript division, Frundsberg, was formed, and went into action for the first time as did Hohenstaufen. However, during the summer of 1943 the Scandinavian regiments, Nordland, Freiwilligen Legion Norwegen and Freikorps Danmark, were expanded and reorganised into the 11th SS Division Nordland. In the spring of the same year the nucleus of the 12th Division Hitlerjugend, recruited from 17-year-old Hitler Youth youngsters, had commenced; the 13 th Handschar was being organised around a cadre of Prinz Eugen personnel from Bosnian Moslems; the 14th Galicische Nr 1, later renamed Ukrainische Nr 1, from 30,000 Ukrainian volunteers; the 15th Lettische Nr 1 from Latvian recruits, many of whom had served (in the Schuma-Bataillon) with the German forces since July 1941; and the 20th Estnische Nr 1 from Estonian troops.

During the fateful summer of 1943, Himmler’s personal escort, Begleit Bataillon Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS, was expanded to brigade strength and, by October, that of a division; the 17th Division Götz von Berlichingen was raised in France from a variety of replacement and training units, drafts from existing divisions and some Balkans of German extraction; the Niederland Legion was expanded to brigade size, as was the Flandern, but the latter received the new title Langemarck; and the Walloon regiment, Wallonische Legion, previously an Army formation, passed to the SS as the nucleus of what would become the 28th Division Wallonien.

During 1944 the 18th Division Horst Wessel was raised around a cadre of German personnel from Hungarian Volksdeutsche; the 19th, Lettische Nr 2, was formed from new Latvian volunteers; the 21st, Skanderberg, from Albanian Moslems; the 22nd Maria Theresia from more Hungarian Volksdeutsche around a nucleus of Florian Geyer veterans; the Karstwehr Bataillon, a security unit which had been based in Italy at the time of the armistice in September 1943, was expanded on paper to divisional status (and its name changed to Karstjäger), although in fact it only achieved the strength of a weak brigade; and even an Italian ‘division’ was created, Italienische Nr 1, from Fascist security troops.

Of more significance than most of these, however, was the Charlemagne Division, Französische Nr 1, which, like the Walloon Legion, had originally served as an Army formation before being transferred to the SS in August 1943; and the infamous Kaminski Brigade of renegade Russians and Ukrainians which received the designation Russische Nr 1. A second Russian division, Russische Nr 2, was formed in 1944, as were a variety of other so-called Waffen-SS units, many of which barely existed except on paper, being comprised of a rag, tag and bobtail assortment of convalescents, stragglers, attempted deserters and other dregs.

It must also be mentioned that German attempts to suborn British prisoners of war into the SS to fight in Russia were not wholly unsuccessful, and that 58 fought in the Britische Freikorps. Their leader, John Amery, was later tried for treason at the Old Bailey and executed.

Further reading

Clark, Lloyd (2004). Operation Epsom. Battle Zone Normandy. History Press. ISBN 0-7509-3008-X.

Lasik, Aleksander (2007). Sztafety Ochronne w systemie niemieckich obozów koncentracyjnych. Rozwój organizacyjny, ewolucja zadań i struktur oraz socjologiczny obraz obozowych załóg SS [Schutzstaffel of the NSDAP in the System of German Concentration Camps; Organizational Development, Evolution of Goals, Structure, and Social Picture of SS Staff] (in Polish). Auschwitz-Birkenau: Państwowe Muzeum. ISBN 83-60210-32-2.

Le Tissier, Tony (2010). Charlemagne: The 33rd Waffen-SS Grenadier Division of the SS. Pen & Sword. ISBN 1-84884-231-7.

Mühlenberg, Jutta (2011). Das SS-Helferinnenkorps: Ausbildung, Einsatz und Entnazifizierung der weiblichen Angehörigen der Waffen-SS 1942–1949 (in German). Hamburg: Hamburger Edition. ISBN 978-3-86854-239-4.

Munoz, Antonio J. (1991). Forgotten Legions: Obscure Combat Formations of the Waffen-SS. Paladin. ISBN 0-87364-646-0.

Quarrie, Bruce (1983). Hitler’s Samurai: The Waffen-SS in Action. Arco Publishing. ISBN 0-668-05805-6.

Rikmenspoel, Marc J. (2004). Waffen-SS Encyclopedia. Aberjona Press. ISBN 978-0-9717650-8-5.

Wegner, Bernd (1990). The Waffen-SS: Organization, Ideology and Function. Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-14073-5.

Wiesenthal, Simon; Wechsberg, Joseph (1967). The Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Memoirs. McGraw-Hill. LCN 67-13204.

Williamson, Gordon (1995). Loyalty is my Honor. Motorbooks International. ISBN 0-7603-0012-7.

Williamson, Gordon; Andrew, Stephan (2003). The Waffen-SS (1): 1. to 5. Divisions. Osprey. ISBN 1-84176-592-9.


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