Hitler's Army at War


By Adrian Gilbert

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From an award-winning and bestselling historian, the first comprehensive military history in over fifty years of Hitler’s famous and infamous personal army: the Waffen-SS.

The Waffen-SS was one of the most feared combat organizations of the twentieth century. Originally formed as a protection squad for Adolf Hitler it became the military wing of Heinrich Himmler’s SS and a key part of the Nazi state, with nearly 900,000 men passing through its ranks. The Waffen-SS played a crucial role in furthering the aims of the Third Reich which made its soldiers Hitler’s political operatives. During its short history, the elite military divisions of the Waffen-SS acquired a reputation for excellence, but their famous battlefield record of success was matched by their repeated and infamous atrocities against both soldiers and civilians.

Waffen-SS is the first definitive single-volume military history of the Waffen-SS in more than fifty years. In considering the actions of its leading personalities, including Himmler, Sepp Dietrich, and Otto Skorzeny, and analyzing its specialist training and ideological outlook, eminent historian Adrian Gilbert chronicles the battles and campaigns that brought the Waffen-SS both fame and infamy.


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The German Reich at Its Height, November 1942

German Blitzkrieg: The Low Countries, 1940

The Eastern Front, 1941–1942

The Eastern Front in the South, 1943–1944

The Battle for Normandy, 1944

The Eastern Front in the North, 1943–1945


Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers:

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Generalfeldmarschall

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: General of the Army*

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Oberstgruppenführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Generaloberst

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: General

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Obergruppenführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: General der Infanterie etc

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Lieutenant General

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Gruppenführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Generalleutnant

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Major General

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Brigadeführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Generalmajor

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Brigadier General

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Oberführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers:

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers:

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Standartenführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Oberst

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Colonel

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Obersturmbannführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Oberstleutnant

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Lieutenant Colonel

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Sturmbannführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Major

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Major

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Hauptsturmführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Hauptmann

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Captain

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Obersturmführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Oberleutnant

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: First Lieutenant

Waffen-SS: Commissioned Officers: Untersturmführer

German Army: Commissioned Officers: Leutnant

U.S. Army: Commissioned Officers: Second Lieutenant

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Sturmscharführer

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Stabsfeldwebel

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers:

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Stabsscharführer

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Hauptfeldwebel

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Master Sergeant

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Hauptscharführer

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Oberfeldwebel

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers: First Sergeant

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Oberscharführer

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Feldwebel

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Technical Sergeant

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Oberjunker

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Fähnrich

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers:

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Scharführer

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Unterfeldwebel

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Staff Sergeant

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Unterscharführer

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Unteroffizier

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Sergeant

Waffen-SS: Noncommissioned Officers: Rottenführer

German Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Obergefreiter

U.S. Army: Noncommissioned Officers: Corporal

Waffen-SS: Other Ranks: Sturmmann

German Army: Other Ranks: Gefreiter

U.S. Army: Other Ranks: Private 1st Class

Waffen-SS: Other Ranks: Mann/Schütze

German Army: Other Ranks: Soldat/Schütze

U.S. Army: Other Ranks: Private

*Officer ranks between the Waffen-SS and U.S. Army (1942–1948) correspond closely, unlike noncom ranks, which are only broadly approximate (U.S. technician grades have not been included).

The German Reich at Its Height, November 1942


THE SS HAS come to personify the evil at the heart of Nazi Germany, its sinister influence seemingly undiminished by the passage of time. Originally intended as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard, the Schutzstaffel (protection squad) grew into a Hydra-like monster under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, administering the concentration-camp system; controlling the Reich’s police, security, and intelligence agencies; as well as overseeing a sprawl of economic interests throughout Germany and its occupied territories. But, most significantly, it developed its own military force—the Waffen-SS—with more than 900,000 men passing through its ranks. The Waffen-SS fought in all the major European campaigns of World War II, earning a deserved reputation for aggression in attack and steadfastness in defense. It also became infamous for its cooperation with other perpetrators of the Holocaust and for the battlefield atrocities it committed against civilians and prisoners.

The Waffen-SS was always an organization in flux. Before the advent of war in 1939, the armed units of the SS were drawn from German volunteers, selected for their physical aptitude and appropriate Aryan background. As the war developed, so the Waffen-SS grew massively in size, an expansion that compromised its overall military quality and, through the recruitment of non-Germans, its racial integrity. By the end of the war it had been transformed into a partially conscripted multinational army.

The scale and nature of these changes seemed to fly in the face of Nazi racial doctrine, as well as running counter to Hitler’s original demand for an elite, ultraloyal German bodyguard. Himmler, however, saw things differently. Obsessed by racial matters, he looked beyond nationality to the concept of a Pan-Germanic Europe, where the countries of northern and western Europe, with their Germanic peoples, would eventually be incorporated into a Greater Germany, which in turn would rule over a new empire in central and eastern Europe.1

Once the war was won, Himmler reasoned, he would use his Germanic formations as a template for a new army,2 while the other units of lesser racial quality would prove useful in controlling the slave populations of the empire in the East and protecting it from external threat. Himmler also saw the advantage of possessing a powerful military force during the inevitable postwar struggles with other Nazi leaders. For these reasons Himmler accepted the myriad difficulties and contradictions that came with raising this multinational army, substantial parts of which were of poor quality and doubtful motivation. Hitler, while not sharing these Pan-Germanic racial enthusiasms, allowed Himmler a relatively free rein, thanks mainly to the exceptional battlefield performance of the German-recruited Waffen-SS panzer divisions.

Germany, of course, did not win the war, and post-1945 the Allies insisted on finding and punishing those they believed responsible for the destruction and killings carried out by Hitler’s regime. The Wehrmacht (army, navy, air force) was swift to transfer blame onto other Nazi organizations, insisting it had played no part in the Nazis’ genocidal policies. As a consequence of the friendly cooperation between senior German commanders and the Western Allies, the concept of the “clean” Wehrmacht began to emerge. This idea was supported in memoirs and other accounts from German officers, among them the influential voices of Heinz Guderian, Erwin Rommel, and Erich von Manstein. Their publications were critically and commercially successful and set the parameters for the understanding of the war among Western readers.3 The Wehrmacht had in fact perpetrated numerous atrocities, especially on the Eastern Front, and was fully aware of Nazi intentions toward its subject peoples. This knowledge was successfully hidden for several decades, until more recent investigations revealed the true extent of Wehrmacht complicity.4

The success of the “clean” Wehrmacht story left the Waffen-SS in a difficult position, especially when critics condemned the SS as a single monolithic entity. Waffen-SS veterans fought back, insisting that their force was an apolitical military elite—the “fourth branch of the Wehrmacht”—quite separate from other parts of the SS, who, with other Nazi agencies, were the ones responsible for the killings. They maintained that the Waffen-SS knew nothing of these events and, instead, was a corps of soldiers motivated by comradeship, patriotism, and a desire to protect Western civilization from the threat of communism. That this defense—or apologia—was fundamentally flawed did not stop the veterans from hammering home their argument. They were sufficiently successful to enlist a new generation of writers from North America and Europe, who adopted and further promoted the idea of the “honorable” Waffen-SS.5

In reality, thousands of Waffen-SS soldiers took part in the systematic killing of Jews, Slavs, and other civilians on the Eastern Front and in the Balkans, while smaller numbers of troops moved between the concentration camps and Waffen-SS field units and vice versa. Likewise, Waffen-SS troops engaged in the battlefield massacres of civilians and captured soldiers throughout Europe, on a scale sufficiently large that entire books have been written describing these atrocities.6 A few of the better-known incidents have been included in this work, if only to counter the fraudulently disingenuous nature of so many Waffen-SS apologias.

In defense of the Waffen-SS, they were far from alone in committing battlefield atrocities. All armies throughout history have behaved badly on campaign: raping and looting, murdering civilians and prisoners. While the Western Allies were swift to take the moral high ground during the war, crimes of this nature were committed by British, American, and French troops in Italy and northwest Europe. In one, albeit exceptional, instance, seventy-three Axis prisoners were shot by U.S. troops at Biscari in Sicily in July 1943, and although the American commanding officers (COs) were subsequently court-martialed, their punishment was minimal. To the Waffen-SS veteran, this was a typical example of the hypocrisy of “victor’s justice.”

There were, however, important distinctions between the battlefield crimes of the Waffen-SS and the Western Allies. The Waffen-SS certainly committed more atrocities and on a larger scale than their Western opponents. And in contrast to the Allied political leadership, Hitler and Himmler repeatedly demanded that their troops ill-treat and kill civilians and prisoners on the Eastern Front. These attitudes were passed down the chain of command, providing a sense of legitimacy to the men carrying out the actions.

A history of the Waffen-SS needs to go beyond just a listing of atrocities. It was one of the more intriguing organizations to come out of the Nazi system. For some of its officers it was a unique experiment in how to wage a new type of war, while to its political masters it was a means to ensure the ascendancy of the National Socialist revolution over the German establishment. And, of course, there was Himmler’s intention to use the Waffen-SS as military backing for his SS-controlled Europe.

Germany’s defeat in 1945 prevented the Nazis from achieving their goal of European domination, but the association of the Waffen-SS with some of the most terrible deeds of the war has inspired revulsion and fascination ever since. It has gained cult status, a popular subject for modelers, war gamers, and historical reenactment societies, as well as the general military reader. Much of this interest derives from its aura of toughness as an elite fighting force, the charismatic nature of its officers, and from more technical aspects, such as the early adoption of camouflage uniforms and, from 1942 onward, the use of some of the best weapons produced in the war. It was also fortunate in being able to call upon first-rate war photographers to provide a detailed visual record of its activities, which has subsequently filled many illustrated volumes of its soldiers at war.

The Waffen-SS has also become a subject of interest to academic historians, considering such factors as its ideology, structural development, social background, criminality, and transnational character. This book charts a middle course. Set within a narrative framework of the campaigns and battles fought by the Waffen-SS, it also examines its transformation as a military organization, from Hitler’s palace guard to Himmler’s mass army.

WHILE AWARE OF the dual military-political character of the Waffen-SS, the emphasis in this book has been placed on its military nature. Greater attention had been devoted to the units and formations that did the most fighting over the longest periods. As a consequence, divisions such as Leibstandarte and Das Reich are considered in some depth, while the ragbag of formations created toward the end of the war—of no military and little political significance—plays only a very minor role. Some basic information on all the divisions can be found in Appendix A.

Anyone writing on this or other German military subjects faces the dilemma of how much “German” to use in the narrative text. Some authors—presumably keen to identify with their subject—copiously use German words and terms. For the sake of clarity, I have tended to rely on English expressions, even though I have arguably broken this rule by using the distinctive SS rank system (see the Table of Comparative Ranks). Many place-names, especially in Eastern Europe, have changed in the years since 1945; I have used the versions most familiar to English-speaking readers, but with local names included where necessary. The (fairly) standard system of describing military units and formations is employed here: armies written out, corps in roman numerals, and the rest in arabic numerals (an exception is made for the German tradition of using roman numerals to describe battalions within a regiment).

Part One


I know there are many people who fall ill when they see black uniforms; we understand that and don’t expect that we will be loved by many people.


Chapter 1


ON 16 JANUARY 1929, Adolf Hitler appointed Heinrich Himmler as his Reichsführer-SS. Although few at the time could have realized its significance, the promotion of the twenty-eight-year-old Nazi functionary to head the Schutzstaffel would transform a disparate group of bodyguards into the most powerful and malevolent organization within the entire Nazi empire.

The origins of the SS dated back to March 1923, when Hitler formed a small headquarters guard to protect himself from attack by rival political factions. In 1925, after his release from prison following the failed Munich Beer Hall Putsch, he called upon his chauffeur Julius Schreck to organize another bodyguard, which on this occasion adopted the title Schutzstaffel.

When Himmler took command of the SS, it comprised no more than 300 men. The SS had been conceived as a small elite force whose allegiance was not to the Nazi Party but exclusively to Adolf Hitler. Himmler was determined to maintain this special status while at the same time expanding the scope and size of the SS. When Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933, its membership had grown to 52,000.

Born on 7 October 1900, Heinrich Himmler was a product of a solid Bavarian middle-class family. He experienced a normal upbringing by the standards of his day and maintained close ties with his parents after he had left home. Himmler’s various biographers have been unable to find anything seriously untoward in his childhood to suggest the nature and course of his subsequent career.1 He enthusiastically volunteered for the army in 1917, but before he could complete officer training the armistice of November 1918 had come into effect. That he had never experienced frontline action would weigh heavily upon him throughout his life.

Himmler drifted in the postwar world, studying agriculture at a university in Munich at the behest of his parents while still hoping to develop a military career. Unable to find a place in the Reichswehr—a force limited to 100,000 men by the Versailles Treaty—Himmler signed up with various paramilitary groups. In January 1922 he met Ernst Röhm, a decorated soldier from the trenches and an early convert to the Nazi cause. Influenced by Röhm, Himmler joined the Nazi Party in 1923 and was accepted into the SS two years later. As a Nazi official, Himmler developed a fixation on the idea of German racial superiority and the notion that the SS should act as a standard-bearer in matters of race. By 1927 he had worked himself up to the position of SS deputy leader.

Himmler’s physical characteristics—slight frame, sloping chin, poor vision—alongside a fussy, often pedantic manner, made him an unlikely candidate for control of the SS. Yet at the time, the position of Reichsführer-SS was not considered to be of much importance, the SS being very much a subordinate part of the Sturmabteilung (Storm Section), or SA.

Founded in 1921, the brown-shirted SA was the Nazi Party’s paramilitary force, its prime function to intimidate political opponents and provide vocal and physical support for National Socialism. Under Röhm’s leadership, the SA expanded into a vast, unruly organization of more than 300,000 followers by early 1933. With Hitler in power it would grow larger still and become a semi-independent body within the Nazi system.

During most of the 1920s Himmler was a minor figure in the Nazi world, easy to underestimate. In 1930 he briefly came under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, the future head of German propaganda. In a suitably patronizing tone, Goebbels described Himmler in his diary: “He’s not particularly clever, but hard-working and well meaning.” Goebbels concluded that he got “too bogged down in details.”2 But Goebbels had misread the man. Himmler was a shrewd and intelligent political operator, and it was his mastery of detail that would prove so useful in his ascent to power.

Himmler has been considered as the archetypal bureaucrat, and while he was undoubtedly a highly capable administrator he was also far more than that. He possessed a capacity for hard work and a focused vision rare among other leading Nazis, transforming the SS from almost nothing to make it the vehicle to realize his ambitions for a Germanic Europe. His command of Hitler’s bodyguard was only a first step on this road to power, and through his determination and political skills he extended the role of the SS to encompass control of the police, security, and intelligence services as well as the creation of the military force that would become the Waffen-SS.

In retrospect, it might seem that the SS—given its ubiquity and success—was an inevitable consequence of Nazism itself, but without Himmler it would have remained a minor organization at best. Himmler’s importance in the creation of the Waffen-SS also needs to be underlined in light of postwar attempts by former Waffen-SS generals to downplay his role. A recent biographer, Peter Longerich, has written, “Himmler was the complete opposite of a faceless functionary interchangeable with any other. The position he built up over the years can instead be described as an extreme example of the almost total personalization of political power.”3

THE TONE AND style of the SS owed much to the Freikorps movement that flourished at the end of World War I. In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, Germany seemed poised on the brink of civil war, with the newly established republican government threatened by communists and other Far Left political groups. The response of the political Right in Germany was to form ad hoc military units, or Freikorps, to suppress these leftist uprisings by force, its members recruited from the many disgruntled former soldiers who seemed unable to return to civilian life. By early 1919 the putative communist revolution in Germany had been snuffed out, the Freikorps earning a reputation for enthusiastic brutality. Apart from its battles with the German Left, the Freikorps fought in various border disputes, notably against Polish insurgents for control of Upper Silesia in 1921.

Varying in size and capability, Freikorps units were typically based around a charismatic individual with frontline experience in the trenches, embodying a ferocious fighting attitude with a casual approach to formal discipline. They took as their model the freebooting Landsknecht mercenaries of sixteenth-century Germany.

Manfred von Killinger, a Freikorps leader and subsequent Nazi politician, wrote that his soldiers “didn’t care why or for whom they fought. The main thing for them was that they were fighting. War had become their career. They had no desire to look for another. War made them happy—what more can you ask?”4 Another Freikorps member, Ernst von Salomon, praised his comrades for their “ruthless action against armed or unarmed enemy masses, their limitless contempt for the so-called sanctity of life and their marked disinclination to take prisoners under any circumstances.”5 Although the Freikorps withered away in the early 1920s, their nihilistic attitude influenced the conduct of the SS from the outset. Many senior Waffen-SS officers served in Freikorps units.

The Freikorps also made their mark on the cumbersome unit and rank designations adopted by the SA and then SS. The old system of the regular army was rejected in favor of more Germanic styles derived from the trenches, so that, for example, a battalion was retitled a “storm unit” (Sturmbann), commanded not by a major but by a Sturmbannführer.


On Sale
Jun 25, 2019
Page Count
512 pages
Da Capo Press

Adrian Gilbert

About the Author

Adrian Gilbert is a military historian and author of award-winning and highly-praised books, including the bestseller Sniper, which has sold over 130,000 mass market copies in the US, Stalk and Kill, and The Encyclopedia of Warfare. He has been a contributor to the Guardian and the Sunday Times, and his reviews of military history books appear regularly in print and online. Gilbert’s book awards include the prestigious Duke of Westminster’s Medal for Military History and he is a member of the British Commission for Military History. His many television appearances include History Channel, Discovery Channel, and the BBC. He lives in northwest England.

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