Military Wiki
Recruitment poster for the Wallonien Brigade
Active 1940–45
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Branch Schutzstaffel
Size 39 divisions

The Waffen-SS (German for "Armed SS", literally "Weapon SS") was the combat arm of the Schutzstaffel ("Protective Squadron") or SS, an organ of the German Nazi Party. The Waffen-SS saw action throughout World War II and grew from three regiments to a force of over 39 divisions, which served alongside the regular army. It is not to be confused with units of the Allgemeine SS subordinate to the Wehrmacht. Waffen-SS was never formally part of the regular army. Although operational control of the Waffen-SS units on the front line was given to the Army's High Command, in all other respects they remained under the auspices of Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler's SS, and behind the lines these units were an instrument of political policy enforcement. It was Adolf Hitler's will that the Waffen-SS never be integrated into the Army. In 1940, Hitler gave permission for the first non-German Waffen-SS formation and by the end of the war, twenty five of the thirty eight Waffen-SS divisions were formed from foreign volunteers or conscripts, or around 60% of Waffen-SS members were non-German.

After the war, in the Nuremberg Trials, the Waffen-SS was condemned as a criminal organisation owing to its essential connection to the Party and its involvement in war crimes and the Holocaust, however Waffen-SS conscripts sworn in after 1943 were exempted from the judgement owing to their involuntary servitude.

SS Wiking

In late 1940, the creation of a multinational SS division, the SS Division Wiking, was authorised and command of the division was given to Brigadeführer Felix Steiner. Steiner organized the volunteer division, and soon[citation needed] advocated for an increased number of foreign units. The 5th SS Wiking was committed to combat several days after the launch of the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), proving itself an impressive[citation needed] fighting unit. It became both one of the established elite divisions and a model for what might be achieved through careful recruitment and training. Its ranks, however, never exceeded 40% "foreign" troops, relying heavily on German officers, non-commissioned officers and technical specialists to provide the major part of its strength.[1]

Further volunteers

Soon Danish, Belgian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish and Dutch volunteer formations were committed to combat, generally proving their worth despite their limited numbers. Himmler was allowed to create his new formations, but they were to be commanded by German officers and NCOs. Beginning in 1942-43, several new formations were built up from Croats, Latvians, Estonians and Ukrainians. Himmler ordered that new Waffen-SS units formed with men of non-Germanic ethnicity were to be designated Division der SS or Division of the SS rather than SS Division. In some of these cases, the wearing of the SS runes on the collar was forbidden, with several of these formations wearing national insignia instead.[2]

Gottlob Berger sought to gain control of all foreign volunteer forces serving alongside Germany's Wehrmacht. This put the Waffen-SS at odds with the Army, as several volunteer units had been placed under Army control, for instance volunteers of the Spanish Blue Division. In several cases, such as the ROA and the 5.SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Wallonien, he was successful, and by the last year of the war most foreign volunteers units did fall under SS command.

While several volunteer units performed poorly in combat, the majority acquitted themselves well. French and Spanish SS volunteers, along with remnants of the 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland formed the final defense of the Reichstag in 1945.

Among the more unusual units to exist in the Waffen-SS was the British Free Corps, a unit composed of former British prisoners of war. It numbered around 60 soldiers,[3] with special insigina, and considerable propaganda potential. Initial efforts at organizing the BFC were made by John Amery in the spring of 1944,[3] and then taken over by the Waffen-SS. Amery was tried and convicted of treason by the British government after the war, and was executed in December 1945.[3][4]

Additionally, there were SS units and entire SS 'Foreign Legions' consisting primarily of Indian, Arabs, Tartars/Cossacks amongst others. A special case was the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger that unofficially accepted common criminals on probation, Gypsies (Roma) and political prisoners willing to repent. Ultimately, a significant majority (approximately 60%) of men who volunteered and fought with the Waffen-SS over the course of the war were not ethnic Germans. The Waffen-SS even made allowances for religious traditions and beliefs with specialised uniforms and insignias, as well as providing spiritual guidance and service in non-Christian religions.

Conscript divisions

Soldiers from Estonia and Latvia were not volunteers[5] but conscripts which the German authorities had denied their wish to form national military units allied to Germany. Under such circumstances, these had either volunteered to the Wehrmacht and had later been forced into the Waffen-SS or were illegally conscripted by general mobilisations.[6] In an April 13, 1950 message from the U.S. High Commission in Germany (HICOG), signed by General Frank McCloy to the Secretary of State, clarified the US position on the "Baltic Legions": they were not to be seen as "movements", "volunteer", or "SS". In short, they were not given the training, indoctrination, and induction normally given to SS members. Subsequently the US Displaced Persons Commission in September 1950 declared that

The Baltic Waffen-SS Units (Baltic Legions) are to be considered as separate and distinct in purpose, ideology, activities, and qualifications for membership from the German SS, and therefore the Commission holds them not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States.

The governments of the Baltic states and the people of Germany consider these men to have been freedom fighters against communism.[6]

List by nation and unit

Cossack members of the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps in Warsaw during the uprising 1944

Bosnian volunteers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian) praying towards Mekka

A Panzer III from SS "Wiking" in the summer of 1942; the divisional insignia can be seen on the tank's mudguard

15th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Latvian) in December 1943

Two early recruits to the BFC:SS-Mann Kenneth Berry and SS-Sturmmann Alfred Minchin, with German officers, April 1944

Members of the SS-Sonderregiment Dirlewanger in the window of a townhouse at 9 Focha Street, Warsaw, August 1944. In the glass reflection one can see details of the kamienica on the opposite side of the street at 8 Focha Street.

Men of the 13th SS Gebirgs Division Handschar.

a soldier leading a team of two horses pulling a mountain gun up a hill

In mountainous terrain, the SS Volunteer Karstwehr Battalion relied on horses to transport mountain guns and other supplies.

Men of the Finnish Volunteer Battalion of the Waffen-SS return home at the end of their contract

An estimated 310 000 Volksdeutsche, 250 000 non Germans and 400 000 Reich Germans served in the Waffen-SS:

Post war

Former Baltic Waffen SS conscripts, wearing black uniforms with blue helmets and white belts, guarding Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess and other top Nazis during the Nuremberg Trials.

After the surrender, many volunteers were tried and imprisoned by their countries. In several cases, volunteers were executed. Henri Joseph Fenet, one of the last recipients of the Knight's Cross was sentenced to 20 years of forced labour and released from prison in 1959.[25] Some were far less lucky and were shot upon capture by the French authorities. General Leclerc was famously presented with a defiant group of 11 or 12 captured 33rd SS Charlemagne men. The Free French General immediately asked them why they wore a German uniform, to which one of them replied by asking the General why he wore an American one; the Free French wore modified US Army uniforms. The group of French Waffen-SS men was then promptly executed without any form of military tribunal procedure.[26]

Walloon renowned leader Leon Degrelle escaped to Spain, where, despite being sentenced to death in absentia by the Belgian authorities, he lived in exile until his death in 1994.[27]

The men of the XV SS Cossack Corps found themselves in Austria at the end of the war and surrendered to British troops. Even though they were given assurances that they would not be turned over to the Soviets, they nevertheless were forcibly removed from the compound and transferred to the USSR. This event became known as the Betrayal of the Cossacks. Most of the Cossacks were executed for treason.[28][29]

After the war members of Baltic Waffen-SS Units were considered separate and distinct in purpose, ideology and activities from the German SS by the Western Allies. Subsequently in the spring of 1946, out of the ranks of Baltic conscripts who had surrendered to the Western allies in the previous year, a total of nine companies were formed with a mission to guard the external perimeter of the Nuremberg International Tribunal courthouse and the various depots and residences of US officers and prosecutors connected with the trial. The men were also entrusted with guarding the accused Nazi war criminals held in prison during the trial up until the day of execution.[30][31]

See also

Further reading

  • Kenneth W. Estes. A European Anabasis — Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940–1945
  • Christopher Bishop: SS Hitler's Foreign Divisions: Foreign Volunteers in the Waffen SS 1940–1945, 2005, ISBN 978-1904687375
  • Jonathan Trigg: Hitler's Jihadis: Muslim Volunteers of the Waffen-SS (Hitler's Legions), 2012, ISBN 978-0752465869
  • Robert Forbes: For Europe: The French Volunteers of the Waffen-SS, 2010, ISBN 978-0811735810
  • Thorolf Hillblad: Twilight of the Gods: A Swedish Waffen-SS Volunteer's Experiences with the 11th SS-Panzergrenadier Division 'Nordland', Eastern Front 1944-45, Helion (2004)
  • Marko Jelusić: "Das „British Free Corps“ in der SS-Schule „Haus Germanien“ in Hildesheim." In: H. Kemmerer (Hrsg.), St. Michaelis zu Hildesheim. Geschichte und Geschichten aus 1000 Jahren, Veröffentlichungen der Hildesheimer Volkshochschule zur Stadtgeschichte Hildesheims 15 (Hildesheim 2010) 197-206. ISBN 978-3-8067-8736-8 (Online in
  • Hendrick C. Verton: In the Fire of the Eastern Front: The Experiences of a Dutch Waffen-SS Volunteer, 1941-45, 2010, ISBN 978-0811735896
  • Lars Larsson: Hitler's Swedes: A History of the Swedish Volunteers in the Waffen-SS, 2013, ISBN 978-1909384118

External links


  1. Williamson, Gordon. "THE SS: HITLER'S INSTRUMENT OF TERROR". Motorbooks International.. Retrieved 2009-11-03. 
  2. Eger, Christopher. Hitler's Foreign Legion: Waffen SS Non German Units in the Waffen SS During World War Two. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Gordon Williamson (2004). The SS: Hitler's Instrument of Terror. Zenith Press. p. 118. ISBN 0760319332. 
  4. Thorpe, Vanessa (17 February 2008). "Oscar winner reveals the secret of pro-Nazi traitor". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-08-18. 
  5. Robert Sturdevant (10 February 1944). "Strange Guerilla Army Hampers Nazi Defence of Baltic". Florence, Alabama. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Laar, Mart (2005). "Battles in Estonia in 1944". Estonia in World War II. Tallinn: Grenader. pp. 32–59. 
  7. The name comes from an Albanian national hero and military leader Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg (born approximately 1405, died on January 17, 1468), who led the anti-Turkish freedom fight.
  8. Thomas, Nigel (2012). Germany's Eastern Front Allies (2): Baltic Forces. Osprey Publishing. p. 15. ISBN 9781780967349. 
  9. The battalion was praised by many Waffen-SS commanders, even Heinrich Himmler, for its combat performance. Himmler said "Where a Finnish SS-man stood, the enemy was always defeated."[attribution needed] Neither the unit nor any of its members were ever accused of any "war crimes".
  10. 10.0 10.1 Source: Tim Ripley, The Waffen-SS At War: Hitler's Praetorians 1925–1945, 2004, ISBN 978-0760320686
  11. This unit, the 8th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade France was led by a former Foreign Legionnaire, Obersturmbannführer Paul-Marie Gamory-Dubourdeau. The 1st battalion of about 1000 men was attached to SS Division Horst Wessel and sent to Galicia to fight the Soviet advance. In fierce fighting the battalion suffered heavy casualties.[attribution needed]
  12. 1 motorised infantry regiment (3 regiments from October 1944, but with French, Belgians and Spanish volunteers)
  13. In the later stages of World War II Lainé decided to separate from Bagadou Stourm and integrate with the SS in the face of the assassination of several leading figures of the Breton cultural movement. One of those assassinated was priest and Breton language defender Abbé Jean-Marie Perrot, murdered by the communist terrorists of the French Resistance. The militia had originally been named Bezen Kadoudal, after the anti-Jacobin Breton rebel Georges Cadoudal. The 1943 assassination of the priest prompted Lainé to change the organization's name in honor of Perrot during December of that year. It had already been envisaged by German strategists that in the event of Allied invasion the Breton nationalists would form a rearguard, and that further nationalist troops could be parachuted into Brittany. [1] However, the rapid American advance from Normandy into Brittany forced the group to retreat along with the German army. In Tübingen many members were provided with false papers by Leo Weisgerber. [2] Following the war many of the organization's members, including Lainé, Heusaff and the nationalist poet Fant Rozec fled to Ireland.[attribution needed]
  14. At least 30,000 Georgians served in the German armed forces during World War II. The Georgians served in thirteen field battalions of up to 800 men, each made up of five companies. Georgians were also found in the Wehrmacht's North Caucasian Legion and in other Caucasian ethnic legions. The Georgian military formations were commanded by Shalva Maglakelidze, Michel-Fridon Zulukidze, Col. Solomon Nicholas Zaldastani and other officers formerly of the Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918–21).
  15. SS-Waffengruppe "Georgien" was formed on December 11, 1944 and commanded by Waffen-Standartenfuhrer der SS Michail Pridon Tsulukidze.
  16. Kasekamp, Andres (2010). A History of the Baltic States. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 155. ISBN 9780230364516. 
  17. Until September 1944, Luxembourg was part of the German Empire, therefore the men were drafted into all German armed branches, no records were kept as "foreign fighters" because they were considered German.[attribution needed]
  18. Fought in the Royal Yugosalv Army uniforms, but were under the command of the Waffen-SS.
  19. Source: Heimdal "Dictionnaire historique de la Waffen SS", 1998.
  20. The most Swedes served directly in the Finnish Army, one of the Axis powers and therefore allies of Germany. The last major fighting Sweden took part in was during the Napoleonic Wars. When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 though, at least 10,000 men volunteered for service with the Finnish forces to fight against the Soviets. This number is especially significant because there were approximately 6.5 million people living in all of Sweden at the time. Sweden and Finland are both Northern European countries and had much in common, therefore, when the Soviets invaded, many Swedes felt compelled to join the Finnish Forces. Another at least 1,500 Swedes volunteered for service with Finland between 1941 and 1944.[attribution needed]
  21. The thousands of Swiss, who fought for Germany, mainly entlisted in the Wehrmacht instead of the Waffen-SS. The numbers for members of the Waffen-SS range between 300 and 2,000 depending on the source.
  22. Robert A. Best in his book from 2010 The British Free Corps: The Story of the British Volunteers of the Waffen SS (ISBN 978-1904911906), lists the names of 165 BFC members, with their fates (where known). He also quotes a source which indicates that by January 1945, some 1,100 Britons had applied to join the formation. Additionally, there was also an SS Irish Brigade, which was about 400 men strong.
  23. In March of 1945, a BFC detachment was deployed with with the 11th Waffen-SS division "Nordland," which was composed largely of Scandinavian volunteers. Although most of the Corpsmen were dispersed throughout the division, a squad-sized unit was assigned to the 3rd company of the reconnaissance battalion, which consisted primarily of Swedish SS men. The BFC contingent was commanded by SS-Scharfuehrer "Hodge." ("Scharfuehrer" is sergeant; "Hodge" is mostly likely a nom de guerre and not his real name.) Richard W. Landwehr Jr. reports (Britisches Freikorps: British Volunteers of the Waffen-SS 1943–1945, ISBN 978-1475059243) , "The Britons were sent to a company in the detachment that was situated in the small village of Schoenburg near the west bank of the Oder River (p. 83)." On March 22, as the company was entrenching, it was partially overrun by an advance element of the Red Army which had blundered into its position by accident. Although taken by surprise, the SS troopers, including the BFC volunteers, quickly regained their wits and launched a vigorous counterattack, driving off the Soviets.
  24. At least eight American volunteers are known to have been killed during their service in the Waffen-SS. They were Francesco Mattedi, a soldier in the Italian SS Division who was killed in Nettunia, 30 April 1944; Charles MacDonald, KIA near Johvi/Estonia, 14 March 1944; Raymond George Rommelspacher, died in Normandy/France, 6 October 1944, Edwin/Erwin Peter, KIA in Latvia, 2 July 1941; Andreas Hauser, died in Welikij in Ukraine, 18 January 1945; Lucas Diel, died on 9 December 1944 in Hungary; and Andy Beneschan, KIA in Bosnia, 16 April 1945. There were also numerous German-Americans who served in the Wehrmacht and as Waffen-SS officers during World War II. Among others were SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Awender, a medical doctor in the SS ‘Frundsberg’ Division who was born in Philadelphia in 1913; SS-Untersturmführer Robert Beimes, a signal officer in the SS ‘Hitlerjugend’ Division, born in San Francisco in 1919. His father was a translator in the SD; SS-Hauptsturmführer Eldon Walli, born in New York City in 1913 in the SS-Kriegsberichter Abteilung (war reporters); and SS-Hauptsturmführer Paul Winckler-Theede, born in New York City in 1912 and served as a military judge in the SS ‘Das Reich’ Division.[citation needed]
  25. "Ritterkreuzträger Henri Joseph Fenet" (in German). Retrieved 10 November 2008. 
  26. This incident took place May 8, 1945, at Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria
  27. Encyclopædia Britannica. "Leon Degrelle". Retrieved 2009-12-03. 
  28. Chereshneff, Colonel W.V. (1952). "The History of Cossacks". Rodina Society Archives. 
  29. Roberts, Andrew (June 4, 2005). "BLOOD ON OUR HANDS;". The Daily Mail. 
  30. Mart Laar, Eesti Leegion sonas ja pildis, Grenader Grupp, 2008, ISBN 978-9949-422-61-6
  31. "Esprits de corps - Nuremberg Tribunal Guard Co. 4221 marks 56th anniversary". Eesti Elu. 

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