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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
A PzKpfw III ausf J and PzKpfw II ausf F of Leibstandarte advance into a Central Russian town on the way to Belgorod during the Manstein Offensive, March 1944.
This book came into being as the direct consequence of the discovery of a previously unpublished group of SS photographs among the resources of the Bundesarchiv, Koblenz. While some of the photos are not of the best quality, the unique opportunity to put these and others from Squadron/Signal's archives into print, and to update and supplement the previous "Waffen SS in Action" at the same time, demanded immediate action. It is not my intention here to write a definitive history of the SS, as many other books explore that subject in great depth. It is, however, my definite intention to explore by use of these photographs, the evolution and use of SS armor, its camouflage and markings.
The unfortunate fact with which any researcher has to deal when studying SS armor is that nearly all the photographs date from a fairly brief mid-war period. Earlier on, there was no official SS armor, and later, when the tide had turned, few photos were taken and fewer still have survived. To partially overcome this deficit, I have at times liberally interpreted "armored" as "motorized" allowing the inclusion of some vehicles from units before they were officially armored and others that were never officially armored.
The format of this book is basically chronological. The story of the SS motorized and armored units in World War II seems naturally to fall into four periods, which are the basis for "chapters" in this book. The text has been kept short, giving only a brief synopsis of events, because it is hoped that the maps and photographs, with their captions, will present the substance of this book in the most useful form.
Note: All maps in this book show political boundaries as of 1939.
Armored Warfare! The "co-ordination of arms" preached by Guderian, the key to the success of German armor, could hardly be more clearly shown than in this photograph of Leibstandarte at Kursk. Although only one tank is visible [a PzBefWg III silhouetted against the sky on the right], the view gives a good idea of the numbers and kinds of vehicles required by a mechanized unit. At the crest of the ravine an anti-tank detachment is digging in, five SdKfz 10 one ton halftracks being visible, while the command group is prudently sited at the bottom of the ravine mounted on three Kfz 70 Horch mPkws and a single Kfz 1/20 VW Schwimmwagen. Meanwhile, a reconnaissance unit is crossing their front under the protection of the far ridge with an even dozen SdKfz 250s, while the command tank and an additional 250, probably from regimental HQ, view the scene from atop the ridge. Those vehicles on which camouflage can be ascertained appear to be in overall Panzer Grey or Sand Yellow with Red Brown overspray, this being a transitional period. [Scott Van Ness]
The story of SS Armor begins with the Polish Campaign of 1939, although the first official SS Panzer regiment did not come into existence until Spring 1942. And even prior to that, the temporary SS groups that did exist were all motorized to a far greater extent than their Army counterparts. The armored support groups that were normally assigned to motorized infantry regiments, such as Reconaissance and Panzerjäger detachments, began to be assembled during the summer of 1939, some seeing combat in Poland.
Our story thereafter is primarily concerned with the four main SS divisions that were in existence at the time of Barbarossa, both because they were the most active, and because they are the most fully documented. We follow their rise to the point, that in July 1943, the SS-Panzer-Korps (containing three of these divisions) may well have been the most awesome armor grouping of its kind ever assembled, massing over 1,000 armored vehicles. We then follow the decline of these and the newer SS armored units as they tried to stem the overwhelming Allied tide. In each battle losing more than could be replaced, they eventually surrendered as mere shadows of their former strength.
Much has been written about the elite status of SS units, some of it true. What is undeniable is that, elite or not, the Waffen SS tended to be better equipped than other German units. They would receive new equipment first and be supplied with replacements of both equipment and personnel more frequently. This could not help but make them more effective in combat. Nor in portraying the Waffen SS can it be forgotten that their ranks were drawn, at least at first, from politically pure Nazi believers, with all that implies of national, political and racial hatred. It is not surprising that these men soon acquired a reputation for brutality beyond that necessary in warfare. While less directly implicated than other SS establishments, and no more so than many army units, the Waffen SS tarnished their warrior image by involvement in numerous attrocities, from assisting in the massive slaughter of Jews, Russians, Poles and others in the East to the relatively petty barbarities, such as Malmedy, in the West. The Waffen SS was not involved in the planning, and only marginally in the staffing, of the concentration camps. Yet, any attempt to portray the Waffen SS as clean while others were committing the crimes simply does not withstand truthful examination. Perhaps most truthfully, it can be stated that the fighting branches of the SS took the qualities of the German soldier to its extremes. At times brutal, they could also be extraordinarily brave and resourceful, seemingly most often against tremendous odds.
Between the beginning of hostilities in September 1939 and the Summer of 1942 the armored units of the Waffen SS came into existence. In response to the demands for an increasing mobilization of the nation, this period of less than three years saw expansion and strengthening of the mechanized SS troops far exceeding that of the previous ten. At the beginning of this period, the Waffen SS was comprised of several independent standarten (regiments), and a few motorized support units. Some of these were intended to be joined into a motorized division at some future date. And even this level of organization had only been reached through the efforts of a retired army officer. Yet by the Summer of 1942, the Waffen SS was composed of six full divisions, four of those having just received two battalion Panzer Regiments that made each of them more than equivalent in strength to any Wehrmacht Panzer Division.
The SS had been in existence since before 1923 but did not officially differentiate its military branch from the police and security sections until 1933 when the SS-Verfungungstruppen (SS-VT=Special Purpose Troops) were gradually defined. These included the Stabswache (Hitler's Bodyguard). The Stabswache, after an intervening reorganization, was officially renamed Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler at the Nurnburg Party Rally in September of that year, under the command of Josef "Sepp" Dietrich. In December 1934, Leibstandarte was officially motorized, setting the pattern for later Waffen SS formations.