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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
The continuing desire on the part of the SS to field combat formations to rival those of the newly re born Wehrmacht led to the announcement in March 1935 that an SS-Division would be formed from various SS-VT units. After more than a year had passed and little significant progress had been made toward that goal, the SS retained the services of Paul Hausser, a retired Army General-leutnant. Hausser knew he had his work cut out for him, taking the loosely organized regional formations of the SS-VT, molding them into the tightly disciplined grenadier standarten and auxilliary groupings essential to a crack division. The first requirement he laid down was that all elements of the division were to be entirely motorized, meaning that the future SS-V-Division would be a mobile, as well as elite, formation. Over the next two years Hausser oversaw the establishment of the second and third motorized Standarten, Deutschland [D] and Germania [G].
Because of the political as well as military character of the early SS military formations, they were often put in the most visible positions during Germany's pre-war muscleflexing. In March 1936, Leibstandarte [LAH] was the first unit to cross into the re-militarized Rheinland, entering triumphantly (and photogenically) into Saarbrucken. Exactly two years later, LAH again led the way, this time as the spearhead of Guderian's XVI Armee during the Anschluss. Immediately following this occupation of Austria, the fourth Standarte Der Fuhrer [DF], composed of Austrian Nazis, began to assemble. A year and a half later this regiment was not ready for combat, so it was with the original three SS Standarten [LAH D & G], those SS-VT divisional troops who had been assembled to this point, and a few assorted battalion-size Totenkopfverbande (units formed to give military experience to concentration camp guards) that the SS went to war.
The SS units that were available for the Polish Campaign were not used as a group but were split up, LAH being assigned to the 11. Armee-Korps of 10. Armee (H-Gr Süd) while Germania was placed into H-Gr Slid reserve. Both travelled considerable distance and saw some fighting. Deutschland had an even more exciting time of it. Along with a number of Army units, D (together with SS-VT divisional troops) had been transported to East Prussia in June 1939. There it was ostensibly to participate in a massed parade at the Tannenberg memorial and take part in maneuvers. Among the formations also in East Prussia was 4. Panzer-Brigade, composed of 7. and 8. Panzer Regiments (later to form the armored elements of 10. Panzer-Division). In order to give von Küchler's 3. Armee something equivalent to the Panzer Divisions massed elsewhere on the Polish border, Deutschland was joined to the 4. Panzer-Brigade and SS-VT Reconnaissance and Artillery Battalions (SS-Auf-Abt and SS-Art-Abt) to form the ad hoc formation, Panzer-Verband Ostpreussen. 1. Armee-Korps, of which Pz-Verb Ostpr was part, served as the left wing of the German advance into Poland, eventually participating in the capture of Brest-Litovsk.
Upon the successful completion of the Polish Campaign, and with the unpleasant realization that the Allies were not going to sue for peace, the German armed forces began a feverish expansion and reorganization. This was especially true of Waffen-SS which had proved itself in Poland to be brave but at times poorly organized and led.
The already authorized SS-VT-Division [mot] was hurriedly assembled and began intensive training. Two new SS divisions were authorized in October 1939 which also began rapid assembly. The SS-Totenkopf-Division [SS-T] was formed around the nucleus of the camp guard battalions that saw action in Poland. The Polizei-Division [Pol], composed of Ordnungspolizei, an already semi-military branch of the national police, was organized at the same time. It was always the weakest of Waffen-SS divisions. Not being composed of politically and racially pure party members, the Polizei-Division was never favored to the same extent as other Waffen-SS divisions, receiving captured or obsolescent weapons and not being motorized until 1943. In fact, it was February 1942 before its police uniforms were traded in for those of the Waffen-SS and that is name was changed to SS-Polizei-Division. None of the SS units took part in the invasion of Denmark and Norway, but by May 1940, the Waffen-SS, now comprising three divisions (two motorized) and a strong regiment, was ready again for action.
The disposition of Waffen-SS troops for the French Campaign was again designed for maximum visibility. Leibstandarte and SS-T were in Army Reserve at the beginning of action, though the motorcycle battalion of LAH was positioned in the front ranks intended to race ahead of other ground units to Rotterdam to link up with Kurt Student's Fallschirmjäger. The SS-Verfugungdivision [SS-V, its name changed from SS-VT in April] was assigned to 39. Armee-Korps (mot) along with 9. Panzer-Division. SS-V saw some fighting almost immediately, becoming involved with fierce local resistance soon after passing into Holland. It was not until nearly two weeks later that the remaining SS units came face to face with the enemy. Coming into action piecemeal along the southern edge of the Dunkirk salient of trapped British and French troops. They took over frontage from Guderian's tired Panzer Divisions. The SS units maintained pressure [SS-T along with Rommel's 7. Panzer-Division fighting off a major Allied armored counterattack at Arras, 21-22 May], but as was the case with the rest of the German forces, were unable to press hard enough to prevent the evacuations from Dunkirk.
With the completion of the first half of the French Campaign, all German Forces were again reorganized and moved into position on the Somme-Aisne line. SS-T moved into Army Reserve seeing no more serious fighting, being used to mop up pockets of resistance behind the advancing Panzers. Both Leibstandarte and SS-V were joined with the Army's 9. and 10. Panzer-Divisions1 in 14. Armee-Korps(mot) at Amiens. The second phase of the French Campaign began on 5 June 1940. Attacking south from the Amiens bridgehead, von Kleist's 14. Korps met only limited success. So fierce was French resistance at this point that, after two days of negligible advance, the corps was withdrawn and transferred 75 miles to the East. On 11 June, 14. Korps attacked again, this time at Berry-au-Bac, and this time with success. The advance now was rapid, by 14 June the Seine was crossed and orders received to drive on the Loire to cut the retreat of French units heading for Bordeaux. By 24 June, when the Armistice came into effect, SS-V was approaching the Garonne Southwest of Angouleme, having covered more distance than any other German unit. Under the terms of the Armistice, the units of 14. Korps continued to the Spanish frontier to complete the occupation of coastal France.
The SS goes to war, sending its motorized grenadier regiments into action. In this unique view, taken during the invasion of Poland, two Kfz 15 Mercedes-Benz 230s of Leibstandarte paused on a Polish backroad. Considerable effort has been made to suppress the identity of these troops. The "SS" has been at least partially masked on both license plates, the troops have had their collar tabs removed and cuff titles covered over. [Scott Van Ness]
Immediately after the conquest of France, the Waffen-SS began another period of rapid expansion and reorganization. Both SS motorized divisions and Leibstandarte were given training areas in France, to complete at leisure the training that had been interupted by the French Campaign. SS-T was assigned to the Biscay coast area just north of the Spanish border where it remained until the end of April 1941. Leibstandarte and SS-V were both assigned to lead the projected invasion of Britain (Operation "Sealion"), and therefore began intensive amphibious training. LAH was the most immediate benefactor of this strengthening process, being raised to brigade status in August though it still retained the title of standarte.