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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
The Summer of 1942 saw the exhausted motorized formations of the SS pulled back individually for much needed refit and reinforcement. It was a process from which they were to emerge for the first time as full fledged armored units. Before the year was over, they were to be the key elements in the most spectacular counteroffensive launched by the Germans during the war.
The first of the SS units to be pulled out of line was the most badly mauled, Reich. The bulk of the division entrained for France at the beginning of March 1942, leaving behind most of its equipment and a battalion-sized formation [Kampfgruppe Ostendorf] to continue to back up the front near Rzhev. Ostendorf stayed in that general area until relieved in mid-June, whereupon it rejoined the bulk of the division, now at Bergen, Norway. The Totenkopf regiment that had been broken-up on the drive to Moscow was replaced by a new third regiment, Langemarck, this one fully motorized. As with the other three motorized SS divisions, Reich received a Panzer-Regiment to bring it up to Panzer-Grenadier division strength. It was also renamed twice again, in May becoming the more grammatical SS-Division "Das Reich" and in November, in acknowledgement of its new composition, SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Das Reich". It was to stay in training until recalled to the Eastern Front along with LAH and Totenkopf in late January 1943, in response to the crisis that threatened the German positions in Russia following Stalingrad.
Leibstandarte followed a similar course. It was withdrawn from its positions on the Mius in June 1942, being pulled back to France, where it was based just outside Paris. Re-equipping and refitting, LAH followed the pattern of Das Reich very closely, even down to being renamed. In September it became SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler". And as with its SS companions it remained in the West until recalled to Russia in January 1943.
In contrast, Totenkopf remained in its position behind the Lovat in North Russia until late October 1942. Only then was it withdrawn to France for what was to be a much shorter refit period. In November it was renamed SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Totenkopf" taking part immediately in the occupation of Vichy France. Totenkopf remained in Southern France until recalled as part of the SS-Panzer-Korps.
Alone among the "original" SS divisions, Wiking was not withdrawn to France for refit, but was reinforced while in position on the Mius. There it received the same strengthening, including a Panzer-Regiment. And it was the first to test its new armor, as it assigned to the 57. Panzer-Korps along with 13. Panzer-Division and given a leading role in the upcoming Summer offensive. The drive was launched 19 July 1942, Wiking seeing heavy fighting from the start, first in the drive on Rostov and then on to the oil fields of the Caucasus. By September part of the oil fields was in German hands, but the attacks had ground to a halt, strangled by the very distances they had covered. At the same time that the division was renamed SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Wiking" in November 1942, the attack was formally called off and defensive positions taken along the Terek. The Russian attacks at Stalingrad finally forced the Germans to acknowledge the weakness of their position in the Caucasus and heralded the retreat of Armee-Gruppe A from the South. By January 1943, when the other SS formations were arriving to help stem the crisis on the Donets, Wiking was back at the Manych, holding open the retreat route through Rostov. At the same time that the Manstein Offensive was clearing up Russian penetrations south of Kharkov, Wiking was similarly employed in mid-February containing the attack of the First Guards Army south of Izyum. When the last Russian resistance had been crushed in late February 1943, the division was in much the same position it had been in a year before, behind the Mius and in need of a refit.
While LAH and Reich were refitting in France and Totenkopf spent a quiet Summer in North Russia, Wiking spearheaded the German drive into the Caucasus, again part of von Kleist's 1. Panzer-Armee.
Wiking took its new Panzer Regiment into action immediately. Seen on the outskirts of Rostov are two PzKpfw Ills, on the left an ausf J and on the right a PzBefWg III ausf H. The ausf J has the divisional insignia on its near fender. Both are in overall Panzer Grey. The lack of a main armament for the command tank makes camouflage more important, hence the amount of foliage carried. [Bundesarchiv]
At the same time that the Russians were tightening the noose around 6. Armee in Stalingrad, plans were being laid for the hoped for dismemberment of the entire German Southern Front by a series of armored attacks. The attacks were intended to split the German armies into easily manageable pieces and push them back against the Black Sea and the Dnieper. It is fortunate for the Germans that the Stalingrad crisis caused the recall of first two and then the third of the SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Divisions in France, giving an adequate armored force immediately available when crisis threatened on the Donets. And fortunate too for the obstinace and audacity of a former Army Generalleutnant without whom that reserve might have ceased to exist before its greatest battle.
In the waist deep grass of the Kuban Steppes, a recon team with their nearly hidden SdKfz 222 scans the horizon.
Having been ordered from France in late January 1943, LAH and Das Reich arrived in Russia in early February and were immediately thrown into the defense of Kharkov. The adhoc SS-Panzer-Korps, under the command of SS-Obergrüppenführer Paul Hausser, went into combat on 11 February with specific instructions from Hitler to hold the city at all costs. Within two days, Hausser was requesting to be released from this condition as the city was being increasingly outflanked to either side. It was a request that fell on deaf ears, as Hitler insisted that "his" SS, above all others, should follow his orders to the letter and without question. Thus Hausser found himself caught between the order to hold the city and the obvious fact that within days the SS-Panzer-Korps and its magnificent mobile striking force would be encircled and forced into costly street fighting for which it was least suited. When, by the morning of 15 February, a single road only linked Kharkov to German lines, Hausser chose to save his divisions, ordering them out of the city, informing a furious Hitler only after the fact. It was these divisions, LAH and Das Reich, along with the newly arrived Totenkopf, that Manstein used to eradicate the penetrations of the Russian Third Tank Army. So obviously correct was Hausser's decision, that in spite of the fact that Hitler's immediate reaction had been to order him shot, Hausser was never officially reprimanded for his direct disobedience.