Raising the Waffen-SS
In principle, the SS was to accept no new members after 1933, except from selected graduates of the Hitler Youth. However, the creation of the Waffen-SS and its rapid growth caused the partial suspension of this rule. However, service in the Waffen-SS did not necessarily include membership in the SS proper.
Prior to the war, suitable SS candidates were singled out while still in the Hitler Youth (HJ). Boys who had proved themselves, often under SS leadership, in the HJ patrol service were often tabbed for later SS service. If the candidate satisfied SS requirements in political reliability, racial purity, and physique, he was accepted as a candidate at the age of 18. At the annual Nazi Party Congress in September, candidates were accepted, received SS certificates, and were enrolled in the SS.
Service in the Waffen-SS was officially voluntary. The Waffen-SS claimed priority over all other branches of the armed forces in the selection of recruits. Eventually, to meet the high rate of casualties and the expansion of Waffen-SS field divisions, service in the Waffen-SS became compulsory for all members of the SS, and the voluntary transfer of personnel from any other branch of the armed forces was permitted. From 1943, pressure was exerted on members of the Hitler Youth to volunteer for the Waffen-SS. Later, entire Army, Navy, and Air Force units were taken over by the Waffen-SS, given SS training, and incorporated into field units. Waffen-SS enlistment drives in Germany were nearly continuous. Waffen-SS recruitment was regionally organized and controlled.
Expanding SS Recruitment to Foreigners
The decision to enlist “Germanic” and “non-Germanic” foreigners in the Waffen-SS was based more on propaganda value than on the fighting ability of these volunteers.
In Scandinavia and the occupied countries of Western Europe, recruiting was undertaken largely by the local Nazi parties. In the Baltic States it was conducted by the German-controlled governments, and in the Balkans by German authorities in concert with the governments. With the growing need for troops, a considerable element of compulsion entered into the recruiting campaigns. The small groups of volunteers were reorganized into regiments and battalions, either to be incorporated into existing Waffen-SS divisions or to form the basis for new divisions and brigades.
Early in 1943, the German government, in exchange for promises to deliver certain quantities of war equipment, obtained from the governments of Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia their consent to a major Waffen-SS recruiting drive among the “racial” Germans in those countries. All able-bodied men considered of German origin, including some who could scarcely speak the language, were pressured to volunteer, and many men who were already serving in the armies of these countries were transferred to the Germans. Well over 100,000 men were obtained in this manner and distributed among the Waffen-SS divisions.
The results of this recruiting were mixed at best. The 13th SS Mountain Division Handschar may have been the worst unit in the Waffen-SS. Formed in the spring of 1943 as the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Division, it initially consisted of Bosnian Muslims and Croat volunteers. When volunteers lagged, Christian members of the Croatian National Army were forced to join the division. Sent to southern France in mid-1943, the division promptly mutinied. The unit was eventually returned to Yugoslavia. In the Balkans it was involved in massacring defenseless Christian villagers and had a high rate of desertion. In October 1944, the unit was disarmed.
In 1945, the 36th SS Grenadier Division Dirlewanger was formed. Better known as the Dirlewanger Brigade, it was upgraded in name to a division in the last weeks of the war. Most of its members were men taken from concentration camps, some were Communists or political prisoners, but most were common criminals. The division eventually accepted hardened career criminals as well as Soviet and Ukrainian prisonerss, members of the Wehrmacht convicted of lesser felony offenses, and eventually all German convicts. Its commander, SS Colonel Oscar Dirlewanger, was a brutal drunkard who had once been expelled from the SS for a morals offense. The brigade was responsible for a number of atrocities, especially against Russian partisans, Poles, and Jews. The division and its commander were considered notoriously unreliable by the German Army.
Subordination to the Army
For military operations, units of the Waffen-SS were usually placed under the command of the German Army. In the beginning, individual units were assigned to Army groups as needed, although an effort was made to give them independent tasks whenever possible. Emphasis was placed on the propaganda value of their employment, and many spectacular missions were assigned to them, although their importance and the difficulty of the tasks were often exaggerated.
On the Eastern Front, these units became involved in increasingly more difficult combat assignments. Gaining reputations as elite forces, divisions of the Waffen-SS began to control regular Army units in their immediate vicinity. The next step was the formation of SS corps which, under OKH command, controlled SS divisions and brigades. Soon certain SS corps held command over a small group of SS units and a much larger number of Army units. Eventually, certain SS corps commanded Army units only. When the Sixth Panzer Army was formed in the autumn of 1944, a large number of units of the German Army were for the first time designated part of an SS formation.
In theory, the influence of Himmler ceased with the subordination of Waffen-SS units to the Army. In effect, however, there was evidence that he retained the right to approve any Army deployment of SS troops. The temporary relief of Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt as commander on the Western Front in 1944 was attributed, at least in part, to a conflict with Himmler over the deployment of Waffen-SS troops.
Fading Purpose and Combat Effectiveness
Waffen-SS units were deployed in all major German land campaigns except North Africa and the 1940 campaign in Norway. Beginning with the conquest of Poland, they played significant roles for the remainder of the war. At least two divisions participated in the Western offensive and Balkan operations of 1940 and 1941. One division was engaged in Finland from the beginning of Operation Barbarossa . In Russia, the number of Waffen-SS units grew from five divisions in 1942 to four corps and 13 divisions during 1944. An SS brigade participated in the garrisoning of Corsica and was later committed as a division in Italy, while another assisted in the occupation of Italy following the Fascist surrender there in 1943. To this were added a new division and a new brigade in 1944.
Two Waffen-SS corps and at least seven divisions fought at various times against partisans in Yugoslavia, and one division formed an important component of the occupation forces in Greece. Two Waffen-SS corps and six divisions were employed in Normandy and participated in the withdrawal from France. On the Western Front, one Army, at least six corps, and up to nine divisions opposed Allied forces early in 1945. Nine Waffen-SS divisions and two brigades operated in Hungary near the end of the war.
The SS increased its power over the Army dramatically in July 1944, as individual members of the Waffen-SS were attached to regular Army units to improve their reliability. Waffen-SS units were used to prevent mass desertions or unauthorized withdrawals. Waffen-SS personnel formed the nucleus of the Volksgrenadier and in some instances of Volkssturm units. Large contingents of the Luftwaffe and Kriegesmarine were pressed into the service of the Waffen-SS when it became urgent to reform badly mauled Waffen-SS units.
At the end of 1940, the Waffen-SS numbered slightly more than 150,000 men. By June 1944, it had grown to 594,000. Intended as an elite force, the Waffen-SS evolved due to the exigencies of war from the original SS concept of a military organization imbued with Nazi ideology and loyalty to Hitler into a polyglot force of decreasing combat effectiveness.
This article originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons