Before Germany went to war the term Waffen-SS had not been coined. The small units which at the beginning of World War II had a strength of 18,000 men were to grow into a formidable army of nearly one million which had earned a reputation for ruthlessness and the grudging respect of not only the German Army, to which it was subordinated, but also the armies against which it fought.
Picture: Himmler and Hitler walking in front of a SS honour guard company.
As soon as Hitler came to power he entrusted the Reichsfuehrer (Reichs Leader) of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, with the task of forming an armed SS guard unit for his personal protection, and as an instrument for special tasks. The original unit was the SS-Stabswache (Staff Guard) which in September 1933 became the Bodyguard Regiment Adolf Hitler (Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler = LAH). Under its energetic commander Sepp Dietrich and with the help of Army and Police instructors, the LAH grew rapidly. Then a further two regiments - Deutschland in Munich and Germania in Hamburg - were formed.
When conscription was re-introduced in Germany on 16 March 1935 the combined strength of the three regiments was 8,459 men. While the men were hand-picked, equipment was often obsolete and motor transport virtually non-existent, but already there were plans to expand these scattered units into a division, which could be used by Himmler in case of internal unrest or subordinated to the Army High Command in time of war.
The theoretical strength and organization of the SS-Verfugungstruppe on the eve of war was a divisional staff, the Leibstandarte and three infantry regiments - all of which were motorised - a regimental staff controlling two motorcycle battalions, a motorised engineer and signals battalion and a medical unit.
Waffen-SS membership totalled several hundreds of thousands of men, and any generalisation is fatuous. The Waffen-SS committed atrocities both on and off the battlefield. So occasionally did the Allied armies of World War II; and so, for that matter, have Western armies since 1945.
The record of the Waffen-SS in some ways resembles certain of those post-war colonial atrocities in that they too were the result of combat stress allied with a total contempt for the human qualities of the enemy and his civilian population.
But in the Waffen-SS this contempt was deliberately fostered as a matter of ideology. While some atrocities were the work of individuals or small groups acting in the heat of the moment, as will happen in any army, in any war, there are plentiful instances of major atrocities carried out by large units, on superior orders, as a matter of policy. We know that Allied units sometimes shot prisoners also.
Picture: This dramatic pic is showing a wounded SS-Ostubaf. with veteran NCOs and young soldiers of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) division in Normandy, June 1944.
The Eastern Legion SS formations, recruited among semi-barbarous peoples for anti-partisan warfare, had a particularly bad record, but the whole guilt cannot be passed on to them; low-numbered Reichsdeutsche (etnic Germans) formations were guilty of equally disgusting excesses. It is therefore permissible to say that in scope, in nature, in degree of official sanction, and in the attitude fostered specifically within the organization, the Waffen-SS record of atrocity is worse than that of any known Allied or other German military force.
But on the other hand, it remains equally true that many officers, men, and units of the Waffen-SS displayed again and again standards of courage, discipline and self-sacrifice which must command the respect of any soldier or historian. These units fought their way to a combat reputation second to none.
The SS-Verfugungstruppe (Waffen-SS from April 1940) took part in the Polish, French and Balkans campaigns not as an integral formation, but split up in Army formations. Often in the van and always eager for the fray, the Waffen-SS was to show an aggressiveness which sometimes bordered on the reckless.
The pre-war expansion of the SSVerfugungstruppe had exhausted Himmler's supply of manpower allowed him by the Army Recruiting Office, but in one year he was able to raise the strength of the Waffen-SS to 150,000. First he removed the hand-picked and well-disciplined concentration camp guard regiments (SS-Totenkopfstandarten) and formed them into a division under the command of the former Inspector of Concentration Camps Theodor Eicke. Then he formed another division from policemen, because he was also the head of the German police.
Picture: Recruiting poster for German volunteers of the Waffen-SS. Before 1944 there were enough German volunteers for the elite units, but later also conscripts had to be used.
In June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Waffen-SS field formations were as follows: SS divisions Das Reich, Totenkopf, Polizei and Wiking; brigades Battle Group Nord and Leibstandarte Adolf
Hitler, and an infantry regiment, with a strength of total 36,517 men.
By mid-1942 the four crack divisions of the Waffen-SS Leibstandarte, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking had all been withdrawn from the front for badly-needed rest and refit, and the addition of a regiment of Panzer IV tanks, so that they could then be classified as panzer grenadier divisions. At this time the organization of a panzer grenadier division was two grenadier regiments, an artillery regiment and a tank regiment and ancillary units.
In 1943 the picture changed dramatically. The replacement of heavy battle-casualties and the need for increased manpower for the strengthened divisions led to the Army lifting some of its recruiting restrictions. The Army was discredited by defeat in Russia and Africa, and Hitler had been seduced at last by the appeal of Himmler's growing army of iron-hard SS formations. Chopping logic about post-war responsibilities was now a luxury - Hitler needed generals and divisions who won battles, and Paul Hausser's recapture of Kharkov with the SS armoured divisions had just given him his first victory for a long time. The Waffen-SS now underwent a rapid and enormous expansion, in which certain distinct elements may be traced.
SS strength, which in September 1942 was 187,638, had reached 350,000 by the autumn of 1943. During the last two years of the war the well-equipped German Waffen-SS panzer divisions were used as a fire-brigade to plug gaps in the German line wherever they occurred.
Picture: Dismissing of Flemish SS volunteers in Antwerp after their tour of duty at the Eastern Front.
Exact figures will never be known, but the best estimates indicate that some 180,000 Waffen-SS soldiers were killed in action during the war; approximately 400,000 were wounded, and probably another 40,000 or more were listed 'missing'.