The Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) was Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard. Initially the size of a regiment, the LSSAH eventually grew into an elite divisional-sized unit. The term Leibstandarte was derived partly from Leibgarde – a somewhat archaic German translation of “Garde du Corps” or personal bodyguard of a military leader (“Leib” = lit. “body, torso”) – and Standarte: the Schutzstaffel (SS) or Sturmabteilung (SA) term for a regiment-sized unit.
The LSSAH independently participated in combat during the invasion of Poland, and was amalgamated into the Waffen-SS together with the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) and the combat units of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV) prior to Operation Barbarossa in 1941. By the end of World War II it had been increased in size from a regiment to a Panzer division. The Leibstandarte division’s symbol was a skeleton key, in honour of its first commander, Josef “Sepp” Dietrich (Dietrich is German for skeleton key or lock pick), and it was retained and modified to later serve as the symbol for I SS Panzer Corps. The elite division, a component of the Waffen-SS, was found guilty of war crimes in the Nuremberg Trials. Members of the LSSAH participated in numerous atrocities. They murdered at least an estimated 5,000 prisoners of war in the period 1940–1945, mostly on the Eastern Front.
Early history (1923–1933)
In the earliest days of the NSDAP, leaders realized that bodyguard units composed of trustworthy and loyal men would be a wise development. Ernst Röhm formed a guard formation from the 19.Granatwerfer-Kompanie, and from this formation the Sturmabteilung (SA) soon evolved. Adolf Hitler, realizing the potential threat the SA presented, ordered the formation of a bodyguard for himself in early 1923. Originally the unit was composed of only eight men, commanded by Julius Schreck and Joseph Berchtold. It was designated the Stabswache (Staff Guard). The Stabswache were issued unique badges, but at this stage the Stabswache was still was under overall SA control. Schreck resurrected the use of the Totenkopf (death’s head) as the unit’s insignia, a symbol various elite forces had used throughout the Prussian kingdom and the later German Empire.
Soon after its formation, the unit was renamed “Stoßtrupp (Shock Troop) ‘Adolf Hitler’”. On 9 November 1923 the Stoßtrupp, along with the SA and several other NSDAP paramilitary units, took part in the abortive Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. In the aftermath of the putsch, Hitler was imprisoned and the NSDAP and all associated formations, including the Stoßtrupp, were officially disbanded.
The second model of the LSSAH Standard
Shortly after his release from prison in April 1925, Hitler ordered the formation of a new bodyguard unit, the “Schutzkommando” (Protection Command). The unit was renamed the “Sturmstaffel” (Assault Squadron) shortly thereafter, and in November was renamed the Schutzstaffel, abbreviated “SS”. By March 1933 the SS had grown from a tiny personal bodyguard unit to a formation of over 50,000 men. The decision was made to form a new bodyguard unit, again called the Stabswache, using capable and trustworthy SS men, mostly from the 1st SS Standarte operating out of Munich to form its cadre. By 1933 this unit was under the command of Josef “Sepp” Dietrich who selected 117 men for the SS-Stabswache Berlin. Out of these initial 117 men, three eventually became divisional commanders, at least eight would become regimental commanders, fifteen became battalion commanders, and over thirty became company commanders, all within the Waffen-SS. Eleven men from the first company of 117 went on to win the Knights Cross, and forty of them were awarded the German Cross in gold for bravery. Later in 1933, two further training units were formed: “SS-Sonderkommando Zossen”, and a second unit, designated “SS-Sonderkommando Jüterbog.”
In September 1933 the two Sonderkommandos merged into the “SS-Sonderkommando Berlin”. In November 1933, on the 10th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, the Sonderkommando took part in the rally and memorial service at the Feldherrnhalle, erected in the place where many NSDAP members had fallen during the putsch. All members of the Sonderkommando swore personal allegiance to Hitler. To conclude this ceremony, the Sonderkommando received a new title, “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler”” (LAH).
On 13 April 1934, Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer-SS, ordered the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH) to be renamed “Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler” (LSSAH). In late June, the LSSAH was called into action for the first time. Stabschef-SA Ernst Röhm began to push for greater power for his already powerful SA. Hitler decided that the SA had to be put in its place, and ordered Himmler and Hermann Göring to prepare their elite units, Himmler’s Leibstandarte and Göring’s Landespolizeigruppe General Göring, for immediate action. The LSSAH formed two companies under the control of Jürgen Wagner and Otto Reich, and these formations were moved to Munich on 30 June.
Hitler ordered all SA leaders to attend a meeting at the Hanselbauer Hotel in Bad Wiessee, near Munich. On 30 June, Hitler joined Sepp Dietrich and a unit from the Leibstandarte and travelled to Bad Wiessee to personally command Röhm’s arrest. On 1 July Hitler finally agreed with Göring and Himmler that Röhm should be executed. In what the Nazis called the Röhm Putsch, but otherwise came to be known as the Night of the Long Knives, companies of the LSSAH, together with the Gestapo and Göring’s Landespolizeigruppe, performed Death Squad actions. At least 177 people were executed without trials over the next few days.
These actions succeeded in effectively decapitating the SA and removing Röhm’s threat to Hitler’s leadership. In recognition of their actions, both the LSSAH and the Landespolizeigruppe General Göring were expanded to regimental size and motorized. In addition, the SS became an independent organization, no longer part of the SA.
As the SS swelled with new recruits, the LSSAH represented the pinnacle of Hitler’s Aryan ideal. Strict recruitment regulations meant that only those deemed sufficiently Aryan—as well as being physically fit and National Socialists—would be admitted.
Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler barracks in Berlin, 1938
The LSSAH provided the honour guard at many of the Nuremberg Rallies, and in 1935 took part in the reoccupation of the Saarland. The Leibstandarte was in the vanguard of the march into Austria as part of the Anschluss, and in 1938 the unit took part in the occupation of the Sudetenland. By 1939 the LSSAH was a full infantry regiment with three infantry battalions, an artillery battalion, and anti-tank, reconnaissance, and engineer subunits. Soon after its involvement in the annexation of Bohemia and Moravia, the LSSAH was redesignated “Infanterie-Regiment Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (mot.)”. When Hitler ordered the formation of an SS division in mid-1939, the Leibstandarte was designated to form its own unit, unlike the other Standarten of the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) (SS-Standarte Deutschland, SS-Standarte Germania, and SS-Standarte Der Führer). The Polish crisis of August 1939 put these plans on hold, and the LSSAH was ordered to join XIII. Armeekorps, a part of Army Group South, which was preparing for the attack on Poland.
Invasion of Poland
During the initial stages of the Invasion of Poland, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler was attached to the 17.Infanterie-Division and tasked with providing flank protection for the southern pincer. The regiment was involved in several battles against Polish cavalry brigades attempting to hit the flanks of the German advance. At Pabianice, a town near Łódź, the LSSAH fought off elements of the Polish 28th Infantry Division and the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade in close combat. Throughout the campaign, the unit was notorious for torching villages.
After the success at Pabianice, the LSSAH was sent to the area near Warsaw and attached to the 4.Panzer-Division under Generaloberst Georg-Hans Reinhardt. The unit saw action preventing encircled Polish units from escaping, and repelling several desperate attempts by other Polish troops to break through. The LSSAH had proved itself an effective fighting unit during the campaign, though several Heer Generals had reservations about the high casualties which the LSSAH and the SS-VT units had sustained in combat. On 18–19 September at Błonie near Warsaw, around 50 Jews were murdered by soldiers from the division.
Invasion of France
In early 1940 the LSSAH was expanded into a full independent motorized infantry regiment and a Sturmgeschütz (Assault Gun) battery was added to their establishment. The regiment was shifted to the Dutch border for the launch of Fall Gelb. It was to form the vanguard of the ground advance into the Netherlands, tasked with capturing a vital bridge over the IJssel, attacking the main line of defence at the Grebbeberg (the Grebbeline), and linking up with the Fallschirmjäger of Generaloberst Kurt Student’s airborne forces, the 7.Flieger-Division and the 22.Luftlande-Infanterie-Division.
Himmler inspecting a tank of the 1st SS Division, Metz, September 1940
Fall Gelb—the invasion of France and the Low Countries—was launched on 10 May 1940. On that day, the LSSAH crossed the Dutch border, covered over 75 kilometres (47 mi), and secured a crossing over the IJssel near Zutphen after discovering that their target bridge had been destroyed. Over the next four days, the LSSAH covered over 215 kilometres (134 mi), and earned itself dubious fame by accidentally shooting at and seriously wounding Generaloberst Student at Rotterdam. After the surrender of the Netherlands on 15 May, the regiment formed part of the reserve for Army Group B.
After the British armoured counterattack at Arras, the LSSAH, along with the SS-Verfügungs-Division, was moved to the front lines to hold the perimeter around Dunkirk and reduce the size of the pocket containing the encircled British Expeditionary Force and French forces. Near Wormhoudt, the LSSAH ignored Hitler’s orders for the advance to halt and continued the attack, suppressing the British artillery positions on the Wattenberg Heights. During this battle the regiment suffered heavy casualties.
After the attack, soldiers of LSSAH’s II.Battalion, under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Wilhelm Mohnke, were mistakenly informed that their divisional commander Sepp Dietrich had been killed in the fighting. In what is known as the Wormhoudt massacre, about 80 British POWs of 2nd Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were murdered in retaliation for the supposed death of Dietrich. Although it is unarguable that the massacre occurred, Mohnke’s level of involvement is impossible to know, and he was never brought to trial.
After the conclusion of the Western campaign on 22 June 1940, the LSSAH spent six months in Metz (Moselle). The LSSAH was expanded to brigade size (6,500 soldiers). Despite this, it retained the designation ‘regiment’. A ‘Flak battalion’ and a StuG Batterie were among the formations added to the LSSAH. A new flag was presented to the LSSAH in Metz, on September 1940, by Heinrich Himmler. During the later months of 1940, the regiment trained in amphibious assaults on the Moselle River in preparation for Operation Seelöwe. After the failure of the Battle of Britain and the cancellation of the planned invasion of Britain, the LSSAH was shifted to Bulgaria in February 1941 in preparation for Operation Marita, part of the planned invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia.
The operation was launched on 6 April 1941. The LSSAH was to follow the route of the 9.Panzer-Division, part of General der Panzertruppen Georg Stumme’s XL Panzer Corps. The regiment crossed the border near Prilep and was soon deep in Greek territory.
The LSSAH captured Vevi on 10 April. Sturmbannführer Kurt Meyer’s reinforced Aufklärungs-Abt (reconnaissance unit) LSSAH was tasked with clearing resistance from the Kleisoura Pass south-west of Vevi and driving through to the Kastoria area to cut off retreating Greek and British Commonwealth forces. Resistance from the Greek 20th Division was fierce. According to some accounts, the SS were inspired to capture the Kleisoura Pass only after Meyer threw a live grenade at the feet of some of his soldiers.
Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt’s I.Battalion was tasked with clearing the Klidi Pass just south of Vevi, which was strongly defended by Australian, British, and New Zealand troops. Witt’s battalion was reinforced and renamed “Kampfgruppe Witt”. An Australian officer wrote of the Germans’ “insolence” in driving “trucks down the main road — to within 3,000 yards (2,700 m) of our infantry” and there unloading the SS troops.
The Germans were forced off the road and faced fierce resistance for more than two days. On the morning of 12 April the Germans launched a frontal assault, and by late afternoon the pass was cleared.
With the fall of the two passes the main line of resistance of the Greek First Army was broken, and the campaign became a battle to prevent the escape of the enemy. On 20 April, following a pitched battle in the 5,000-foot (1,500 m)-high Metsovon Pass in the Pindus Mountains, the commander of the Greek First Army surrendered the entire Hellenic Army to Dietrich. British Commonwealth troops were now the only Allied forces remaining in Greece, and they were falling back across the Corinth Canal to the Peloponnesos. By 26 April the LSSAH had reached the Gulf of Patras, and in an effort to cut off the retreating British Commonwealth forces, Dietrich ordered that his regiment cross the Gulf and secure the town of Patras in the Peloponnesos. Since no transport vessels were available, the LSSAH commandeered fishing boats and successfully completed the crossing, but were forced to leave much of their heavy equipment behind. By 30 April the last British Commonwealth troops had either been captured or escaped. The LSSAH occupied a position of honour in the victory parade through Athens.
Following Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’s outstanding performance during Marita, Himmler ordered that it should be upgraded to divisional status. The regiment, already the size of a reinforced brigade, was redesignated “SS-Division (mot.) Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler”. There was no time to refit the division to full divisional status before the launch of Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of the Soviet Union—and so the new “division” remained the size of a reinforced brigade.
The LSSAH was attached to the LIV Army Corps and held in reserve during the opening stages of the attack. In August 1941 it was transferred to III Panzer Corps, part of Generalfeldmarschall Ewald von Kleist’s 1st Panzer Group. During this time the LSSAH was involved in the Battle of Uman and the subsequent capture of Kiev. The division was involved in heavy fighting, with Meyer’s Abteilung particularly distinguishing itself. According to a postwar account of a Waffen-SS journalist, after finding the mutilated bodies of six dead members of the division who had been previously captured and executed in Taganrog, the division murdered 4,000 Soviet prisoners in reprisal. For want of reliable evidence, the allegations remained unproven.
In early September, the division was transferred back to LIV Army Corps, preparing to launch an offensive to clear the Crimean peninsula. The operation was launched on 17 September 1941. The LSSAH was involved in heavy fighting for the town of Perekop before advancing across the Perekop Isthmus to assault the Soviet defensive positions near the Tartar Ditch.
In November the LSSAH was transferred back to 1st Panzer Group and took part in the heavy fighting for the city of Rostov-on-Don, which was captured in late November. During Operation Barbarossa, the division had penetrated 960 kilometres (600 mi) into Soviet territory.
Heavy Soviet counterattacks during the winter meant that Army Group South had to fall back from Rostov-on-Don to defensive lines on the river Mius. The LSSAH spent the winter fighting ferocious defensive battles in temperatures of down to −40 °C (−40 °F), with minimal winter clothing and only 150 grams of rations per man per day. Despite this, the division held. After the spring rasputitsa had cleared, the exhausted division joined in Fall Blau, participating in the fighting to retake Rostov-on-Don, which was recaptured in late July 1942. Severely understrength and completely exhausted, the LSSAH was pulled out of the line. The division was ordered to the Normandy region of occupied France to join the newly-formed SS Panzer Corps and to be reformed as a Panzergrenadier division.
The Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler spent the remainder of 1942 refitting as a panzergrenadier division. Thanks to the efforts of Heinrich Himmler Reichsführer-SS, along with SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, the SS Panzer Corps commander, the three SS Panzergrenadier divisions (LSSAH, Das Reich and Totenkopf were to be formed with a full regiment of tanks rather than only a Battalion. This meant that the SS Panzergrenadier divisions were full-strength Panzer divisions in all but name. Also, the division received nine Tiger 1 tanks, and these were formed into 13th(schwere)Company/1st SS Panzer Regiment. The collapse of the front around Stalingrad and the encirclement of the German Sixth Army meant that the entire eastern front was close to collapse. General Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein, commander of Army Group Don, requested reinforcements to halt the Soviet attack near Kharkov. The SS Panzer Corps was ordered east to join Manstein’s forces.
Arriving at the front in late January 1943, the LSSAH was thrown into the line defending Kharkov itself as a part of Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps. Facing them were the hundreds of T-34s of Mobile Group Popov, a Soviet armoured Army sized formation which formed the spearhead of the Soviet advance. On 8–9 February 1943, the LSSAH’s 1st SS Panzergrenadier Regiment under SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Witt, fighting alongside SS-Sturmbannführer Max Wünsche’s I/1st SS Panzer Regiment, fought a bitter delaying action near the town of Merefa, halting a major Soviet attack. The division fought in many desperate defensive battles over the next few weeks, gradually being pushed back into the city of Kharkov itself.
Despite inflicting heavy losses on the Soviets, and rebuffing all enemy attacks, the Soviets succeeded in outflanking the corps. On 15 February, Hausser ignored Hitler’s orders to hold the city at all costs and ordered the SS Panzer Corps to abandon the city and withdraw towards Krasnograd. Over the next week, the SS Panzer Corps annihilated Mobile Group Popov in a series of hard fought battles. The LSSAH was a major participant in these battles, destroying several Soviet divisions and inflicting heavy losses.
Hausser now ordered that Kharkov be recaptured. The LSSAH, Das Reich and Totenkopf were to form the spearhead of the attack. The attack got underway on 7 March. The LSSAH was formed into three Kampfgruppen which would attack towards and capture Kharkov. Over the nine days, the LSSAH would take part in the battles to take the city. Kampfgruppe Meyer, under Meyer’s command, penetrated to Red Square before being cut off. Kampfgruppe Witt saw heavy fighting against a Soviet blocking force near Dergatschi before it also broke through into the city.
Both Kampfgruppen were repeatedly cut off during the confused fighting, and it was not until Kampfgruppe Peiper, under Joachim Peiper, broke through that the defenders were finally overwhelmed. By 17 March, the battle was over and Kharkov was back in German hands, with Peiper’s Kampfgruppe having penetrated as far as Belgorod.
After recapturing Kharkov, soldiers of the LSSAH engaged in the murder of wounded Soviet soldiers that were located in the city’s military hospital; several hundred perished. Additionally, per the Commissar Order captured Soviet officers and commissars were routinely executed.
In honour of the 4,500 casualties suffered by the Leibstandarte in the fighting, Kharkov’s Red Square was renamed Platz der Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler by the Germans. The division was pulled back for much needed rest and refit. One major change in the LSSAH now occurred their commander Sepp Dietrich after ten years in command was promoted to form a new Corps the 1st SS Panzer Corps Leibstandarte and the LSSAH was to supply all the senior officers for the new headquarters. At the same time a new SS division would be formed from members of the Hitler Youth and the LSSAH would supply all of the Regimental, Battalion and most of the Company commanders. In time this new division would become the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.
Elements of LSSAH took part in Fabrikaktion “factory action” a/k/a/ Großaktion Juden “Major Action (on) Jews”, an operation to capture remaining German Jews that worked in the arms industry. Soldiers of the Leibstandarte helped the Gestapo round up Jews in Berlin; people were taken from their jobs and herded in cattle wagons on February 27–28th 1943. Most of the captured perished either in Auschwitz or other camps in the East. Further, the division was awarded stolen Jewish property. For example, in May 1943 it was to receive 500 men’s watches taken from Jews. And, as with other Waffen-SS divisions, it received winter clothing that was confiscated from camps and ghettos in the East.
The spring rasputitsa halted offensive operations, giving the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler time to rest and refit. By early June 1943, the division had been fully refitted and now under the command of Brigadeführer, Theodor Wisch. Its armour strength was 12 Tiger Is, 72 Panzer IVs, 16 Panzer III and Panzer IIs, and 31 StuGs. In late June 1943, the formation of I SS Panzer Corps meant that Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps was renamed II SS Panzer Corps.
The II SS Panzer Corps was moved north to Belgorod in preparation for the upcoming summer offensive; Operation Citadel. The LSSAH, along with the Totenkopf and Das Reich, was to form the spearhead of Generaloberst Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, tasked with breaching the southern flank of the Kursk salient. Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s 9th Army was to breach the northern flank, and the two forces were to meet near the city of Kursk, thereby encircling a large Soviet force.
The II SS Panzer Corps reached its assembly areas on 28 June and began preparing for the assault. The attack was set for 5 July, and on 4 July the II SS Panzer Corps, as well as the XLVIII Panzer Corps on its left and the III Panzer Corps on the right, began minor attacks to secure observation posts. Fighting lasted throughout the day, with the LSSAH’s Pioneer Battalion seeing heavy action clearing out the entrenched Soviets.
The LSSAH’s panzers, advancing in Panzerkeils, soon ran into the Soviet Pakfronts. The elaborate system of Soviet defences slowed the attack, but unlike in Model’s sector, the 4th Panzer Army, spearheaded by the II SS Panzer Corps and the LSSAH, was not halted, and eventually broke through.
By 9 July, the II SS Panzer Corps had advanced 30 miles (48 km) north, and were nearing the small town of Prokhorovka. The LSSAH again took the lead, by now its armour strength reduced to just 77 armoured vehicles. The 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, supported by several tanks, advanced straight up the road to Prokhorovka against heavy resistance. By midday, the grenadiers had cleared the Komsomolets State Farm and they began the attack on Hill 241.6, which they secured shortly after nightfall on 10 July.
On 11 July, the advance resumed, with the division capturing Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2 in heavy fighting against Soviet Paratroops of the 9th Guards Airborne Division. On 12 July, the Soviets threw the 5th Guards Tank Army into a counterattack near Prokhorovka. Two tank corps faced the LSSAH, hitting the advancing Germans around Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. In the ensuing fighting, the outnumbered Germans inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets, knocking out many tanks. In the process, the LSSAH also suffered relatively light casualties; however the Soviet counterattack had stalled the German advance, and the division was forced to fall back to Oktiabr’skii. The Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army lost 300 tanks destroyed and further 300 damaged on 12 July. Fighting continued on 13 July, but the focus of the Soviet attack had then shifted to the Totenkopf, on the left of the LSSAH.
With the Battle of Prokhorovka still in the balance, a massive Soviet counteroffensive near Orel caused Hitler to order the cancellation of Citadel. The II SS Panzer Corps was pulled back. LSSAH was ordered out of the line; having suffered 2,753 casualties including 474 killed. 11 tanks were lost during Operation Citadel. The division was then sent to Italy to help stabilise the situation there caused by the deposal of Benito Mussolini by the Badoglio government and the Allied invasion of Sicily on 10 July. The division left behind its armour and equipment, which was given to Das Reich and Totenkopf.
The division travelled back to Innsbruck, Austria, where they were re-equipped with vehicles. They continued across the Alps and into Northern Italy. The division arrived on the Po River Plain on 8 August 1943. The Leibstandarte was given the task of guarding several vital road and rail junctions in the area of Trento-Verona. After several weeks, the division was moved to the Parma-Reggio area. During this period, the Leibstandarte was involved in several skirmishes with partisans. With the Italian collapse of 8 September 1943, the division was ordered to begin disarming nearby Italian units. This went smoothly, with the exception of brief, bloody fights with Italian troops stationed in Parma, Cremona and Piacenza on 9 September. By 19 September, all Italian forces in the Po River Plain had been disarmed, but OKW was concerned by reports that elements of the Italian Fourth Army were regrouping in Piedmont, near the French border. Sturmbannführer Peiper’s mechanised III/2nd SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment was sent to disarm these units. Upon arriving in the Province of Cuneo, Peiper was met by an Italian officer who warned that his forces would attack unless Peiper’s unit immediately vacated the province. After Peiper refused, the Italians forces attacked. Peiper’s battalion defeated the Italians, and later shelled and burnt down the village of Boves killing 34 civilians. The soldiers then proceeded to disarm the remaining Italian forces in the area.
Following the disintegration and capitulation of Italy, the activities of partisan groups increased all across the area. Further, soldiers from the Leibstandarte murdered 49 Jewish refugees near Lake Maggiore, who had fled there after the German takeover. The murders happened between 15 and 24 September. Some of the victims had their feet and hands tied and were drowned.
The Leibstandarte was sent to the Istria Peninsula and was engaged in several major anti-partisan operations. During its period in Italy, the Leibstandarte was reformed as a full panzer division, and redesignated 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. In early November, the deteriorating situation in the east meant that the division was ordered back to the Eastern Front, arriving in the Zhitomir area in mid November.
The division was posted to XLVIII Panzer Corps, a part of 4th Panzer Army, which was struggling to hold the line near Zhitomir. The division was broken up into several Kampfgruppe and thrown into action. On 18 November, Kampfgruppe Frey halted the advance of the Fifth Guards Tank Army near the town of Kotscherovo. Over the next two months, the division’s Kampfgruppen saw very heavy fighting in the Zhitomir area, performing fire-brigade actions and enabling XLVIII Panzer Corps to hold the line.
In January 1944, one of the Leibstandarte’s 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion Tiger commanders, Michael Wittmann, was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for his actions in halting the attack of an entire Soviet armoured brigade. The division was transferred to the Cherkassy area at the end of January, where it was assigned to III Panzer Corps; part of 1st Panzer Army.
When the 56,000 men of Gruppe Stemmermann were trapped in the Korsun Pocket in mid to late-January and early to mid-February 1944, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, along with the remainder of III Panzer Corps and XLVII Panzer Corps were ordered to attempt to break the Soviet cordon and rescue the trapped forces. Hitler intervened, and ordered the relief attempt be transformed into an impossible attempt to counter-encircle two Soviet fronts. The LSSAH, along with other panzer units including Oberstleutnant Dr. Franz Bäke’s 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, spearheaded the attack. Despite initial gains, the attack soon stalled due to a combination of the resistance of four Soviet tank corps and the thick mud of the rasputitsa. The exhausted Germans managed to reach the Gniloy Tikich River, where a small bridgehead was established. The survivors of the encirclement fought their way through to the bridgehead and by nightfall on 16 February the battle was over.
The majority of the LSSAH which amounted to 41 officers and 1,188 men was withdrawn to Belgium for rest and refit, however a Kampfgruppe was left behind. On 25 March, the entire 1st Panzer Army was encircled in the Kamenets-Podolsky Pocket. One of the LSSAH’s Kampfgruppen took part in the desperate fighting to escape the encirclement, forming a part of the spearhead which linked up with the II SS Panzer Corps near Buczacz on 6 April. The shattered remnant of the Kampfgruppe was ordered to Belgium where it was to rest, refit and rejoin the rest of the division. The new LSSAH Division was reformed in Belgium and at full strength by 25 April.
Western Front Normandy
It was again part of the I SS Panzer Corps which at this time consisted of the 101 SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, Hitlerjugend, 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen and the Panzer Lehr Division. The LSSAH had been positioned north of the River Seine to counter any possible landing in the Pas de Calais so the first units did not arrive in Normandy until the night of the 27–28 June with the whole division taking another week to arrive. By 4 July the I SS Panzer Corps was reformed and now consisted of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. The first action they were involved in was the defence of Carpiquet village and aerodrome in what was known to the Allies as Operation Windsor. Next followed a number of Allied attacks Operation Charnwood and Operation Jupiter and on 12 July the LSSAH were in charge of the Caen south sector from Maltot in the west to the Caen – Falaise road in the east. During the night 14 – 15 July LSSAH was relieved by the 272nd Infantry Division and pulled back to a concentration area astride the Caen – Falaise road between Ifs and Cintheaux.
The starting lines of Operation Spring, showing the layout of divisional and battalion forces for both sides. The Division strength prior to Goodwood was reported as 59 Panzer IVs, 46 Panthers and 35 StuG III’s.
Operation Goodwood launched 18 July, pitted three British armoured divisions, with infantry support on their flanks. They were to swing through the gap between Caen and the eastern heights. There they would have to get across the hills at Bourguébus and break through towards open ground. The operation was preceded by a three hour bombing assault by 2,500 aircraft.
Immediately afterwards the British tanks came rumbling on and seized all their primary objectives. II/1st SS Panzer Regiment, located by the woods near Garcelles, received orders to attack the British at Soliers. SS-Obersturmführer Malkomes drove in the direction of Bourguébus with his 13 Panthers and discovered 60 British tanks South South East of the town. He attacked them, destroying 20, and capturing Soliers. Around 12:00 hours the Panther Battalion, I/1st SS Panzer regiment, was engaged in combat with the British 29th Armoured Brigade of the British 11th Armoured Division. The body of the Leibstandarte was rushed to the front from Falaise, where it was being held in reserve. Counterattacked immediately at 17:00, together with the 21st Panzer Division, they halted the British offensive on the left front.
At first, 19 July seemed to bring an end to Operation Goodwood, as only some individual tank assaults were carried out. But by 13:00 the British charged again, having brought up reinforcements to continue the attack. They quickly overran the forward German units and pressed on hard, a wave of tanks spearheading the attack. But when the leading Sherman/Fireflies and Cromwells approached Bourguébus Ridge at 16:00 hours, they came under fire and were blown up; the Panthers of the Leibstandarte had taken up positions on the ridge itself. Around 15:00 hours the first reinforcements of the 12th SS Panzer Division arrived, which relieved the right flank. The Canadians next attack was the Battle of Verrières Ridge and Operation Spring (see map), where the LSSAH came up against a number of allied divisions including the Guards Armoured Division, 7th Armoured, 2nd Canadian and the 3rd Canadian.
Next for the LSSAH was Operation Spring, where the division and the Hitlerjugend was pitted against the Black Watch and several units that were supporting the Black Watch.
On 25 July 1944, following six weeks of attritional warfare along a stalemated front, American forces under General Omar Bradley succeeded in breaking through German defenses as part of Operation Cobra. On 1 August, American forces captured Avranches. Simultaneously, General George Patton’s Third United States Army was activated. With the capture of Avranches, American forces were able to “turn the corner” of Normandy, pushing through into Brittany and the coastal ports. As a result, German defensive operations could no longer be anchored against the coast on both flanks. By 4 August, seven divisions of the 3rd Army had entered Brittany.
With the American breakthrough, in spite of this costly victory, the Allied forces remained vastly superior in numbers. Five days later the Americans saw the chance to break out of their beachhead. The weakened German defense could not keep up with the savage battle of attrition as little or no reinforcements had arrived, supplies were shot up from the air, and movement by day was made impossible. Hitler forbade any retreat and, instead, ordered an assault to be made under the code name Operation Lüttich. According to Hitler, three qualifications had to be met for the attack to proceed. “Von Kluge must believe in it. He must be able to detach enough armour from the main front in Normandy to create an effective striking force, and he must achieve surprise”. For his counteroffensive, Von Kluge would have available the XLVII Panzer Corps, consisting of the 2nd Panzer Division, part of the 1st SS Panzer Division, the 2nd SS Panzer Division and the 116th Panzer Division.
The XLVII Panzer Corps was supported by two infantry divisions and five battle groups, formed from the remnants of the Panzer-Lehr Division and four equally battered infantry divisions. Although Hitler promised more reinforcements, von Kluge was skeptical of the chance of their arrival. Aware of the increasing number of American troops moving to his south—creating the potential of being outflanked—von Kluge elected to begin the offensive earlier than originally planned, with the attack commencing at midnight on 6 August 1944.
To avoid alerting American forces to the imminence of a German attack, Operation Lüttich would not use artillery bombardments to precede the attack. The initial attacks, consisting of 300 tanks, would hit the 30th Infantry Division east of Mortain, then cut through American defenses to reach the coast. Had surprise been achieved, the attack would likely have succeeded. However, Allied-decoders at Ultra had intercepted the codes for Operation Lüttich by 4 August. As a result, General Omar Bradley was able to obtain air support from both the US 9th Air Force and the RAF.
LSSAH, together with the other divisions went on the attack on 7 August after moving to the assembly areas on 5 and 6 August. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment, along with two Panzergrenadier Battalions, one Pionier Company and the division’s Flak Battalion, were used for the attacks. The weather was not suited for flying that morning, which only disadvantaged the Allies. The result was that the attack went smoothly at first, despite the fact that the Allies knew the attack was coming. The 2nd SS Panzer Division managed to recapture Mortain, and an armoured Kampfgruppe under Joachim Peiper managed to go as far as Bourlopin, but was stopped by massive Allied air power, and American counterattacks. Another attempt was mounted the next day to capture Avranches, but it failed.
A report from SS-Obersturmführer Preuss, 10th Company/2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment describes the impossible situation:
It is true that one fighter bomber we shot down landed on a Panzer and destroyed it. Most other Panzer and Schützenpanzer, however, fell victim to this intensive air bombardment, which lasted hours. Those Grenadiers still able to fight had spread themselves out to the left and right through the terrain’s many hedges. They were happy to see that the bombers swarming like bees over our heads were finding more rewarding targets than individual men. I agreed with them. I heard that Peiper had suffered a heart attack. Diefenthal (the commander of the III./2nd) lost his hearing when a bomb fell right next to him. Kuhlmann was unable to get the attack moving forward again. My brave messenger, Sturmmann Horst Reinicken, was killed as he tried to reach the command post of the Heer Panzerabteilung to which we were subordinated. He was trying to bring the Panzerabteilung the news that its commander and Adjutant lay dead not far from our hedge.
This marked the end of the campaign in Normandy; the Leibstandarte was encircled by the Americans and Canadians, supported by the 1st Polish Armoured Division, in what would be called the Falaise pocket, but by then the unit was reduced to several small Kampfgruppen. Leibstandarte withdrew from the pocket with Unterführers and Führers each taking the lead of a small Kampfgruppe and smashing through the ring, on 22 August, after which no combat ready tanks or artillery pieces were reported. The whole campaign caused some 5,000 casualties to the LSSAH. During their retreat from France, members of the LSSAH and Hitlerjugend division murdered 34 French civilians in towns of Tavaux and Plomion.
The Ardennes Offensive (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945) was a major German offensive launched towards the end of World War II through the forested Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium, France and Luxembourg on the Western Front. The offensive was called Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein (Translated as Operation The Guard on the Rhine or Operation “Watch on the Rhine.”) by the German armed forces. The “bulge” was the initial incursion the Germans put into the Allies’ line of advance, as seen in maps presented in contemporary newspapers.
Wacht am Rhein
Operation Wacht am Rhein was the final major offensive and last gamble Hitler was to make. Wilhelm Mohnke, now in command of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, was to lead his formation as the spearhead of the entire operation in the Ardennes. Attached to the I SS Panzer Corps, the LSSAH, one of the most elite and highly trained units in the entire German military. However, the divisions high casualties had forced it to take in a large number of inexperienced replacements to add to the core of battle-hardened and experienced veterans. The crisis in the Reich meant that the LSSAH had dangerously low amounts of fuel for the vehicles in the upcoming campaign. On 16 December 1944 the operation began, with Mohnke designating his best colonel, Standartenführer Joachim Peiper, and his regiment to lead the push to Antwerp.
In the north, the main armored spearhead of the Sixth SS Panzer Army was Kampfgruppe Peiper, consisting of 4,800 men and 600 vehicles of the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler under the command of Joachim Peiper. Its vehicles included Panzer IV (PzKw IV), Panzer II (PzKw II Ausf.H), Panther tank (PzKw V), Sturmgeschütz III (StuG III Ausf.G), Tiger I (PzKw VI) and Tiger II (Ausf. B).
Bypassing the Elsenborn ridge, at 07:00 on 17 December, they seized a U.S. fuel depot at Büllingen, where they paused to refuel before continuing westward. At 12:30, near the hamlet of Baugnez, on the height halfway between the town of Malmedy and Ligneuville, they encountered a convoy of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, U.S. 7th Armored Division. After a brief battle the Americans surrendered. They were disarmed and, with some other Americans captured earlier (approximately 150 men), sent to stand in a field near the crossroads and were shot. A small number of men escaped and a few survived by feigning death. It is not known what caused the shooting and there is no record of an SS officer giving an execution order; such shootings of prisoners of war (POWs), however, were common by both the Germans and the Soviets on the Eastern Front. News of the killings raced through Allied lines. Captured SS soldiers who were part of Kampfgruppe Peiper were tried following the war for this massacre and several others in the area during the Malmedy massacre trial.
Memorial to the Wereth 11
Peiper entered Stavelot on 18 December but encountered fierce resistance from the American defenders. Unable to defeat them, he left a smaller support force in town and headed for the bridge at Trois-Ponts with the bulk of his strength, but by the time he reached it, retreating U.S. engineers had already destroyed it. Peiper pulled off and headed for the village of La Gleize and from there on to Stoumont. There, as Peiper approached, engineers blew up the bridge, and the American troops were entrenched and ready. Peiper’s troops were cut off from the main German force and supplies when the Americans recaptured the poorly defended Stavelot on 19 December. As their situation in Stoumont was becoming hopeless, Peiper decided to pull back to La Gleize where he set up his defences waiting for the German relief force. Since no relief force was able to penetrate the Allied line, on 23 December Peiper decided to break through back to the German lines. The men of the Kampfgruppe were forced to abandon their vehicles and heavy equipment, although most of the unit was able to escape.
With each passing day, enemy resistance stiffened and the advance was eventually halted on all fronts. Desperate to keep the assault going, the German High Command ordered that a renewed attack begin on 1 January 1945. Yet this time, the Allies had regrouped their forces and were ready to repulse any attacks launched by the Germans. The operation formally ended on 27 January 1945, and three days later Mohnke was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer. A short while later LSSAH and the I SS Panzer Corps were transferred to Hungary to bolster the crumbling situation there. Mohnke was injured in an air raid where he suffered, among other things, ear damage. He was removed from front-line service and put on the Führer reserve. In his place, SS-Brigadeführer Otto Kumm was appointed the new Division Commander as of 15 February 1945.
During Battle of the Bulge, soldiers from 3./SS-PzAA1 LSSAH captured eleven African-American soldiers from 333rd Artillery Battalion in the hamlet of Wereth. Subsequently the prisoners were shot and their remains found by Allied soldiers two months later. The soldiers had their fingers cut off, legs broken, and at least one was shot while trying to bandage a comrade’s wounds.
Eastern Front 1945
Operation Spring Awakening (Frühlingserwachen) (6 March 1945 – 16 March 1945) was the last major German offensive launched during World War II and was an offensive launched by the Germans in great secrecy on 6 March 1945. The Germans launched attacks in Hungary near the Lake Balaton area on the Eastern Front. This area included some of the last oil reserves still available to the Germans. The Operation involved many German units withdrawn from the failed Ardennes Offensive on the Western Front including the 6th SS Panzer Army and the LSSAH. Almost inevitably, Operation Spring Awakening was a failure for the German Army. Despite early gains, the operation was a perfect example of Hitler’s increasingly poor military judgement toward the end of the war. Its chief flaw was that the offensive was far too ambitious in scope.
After the failure of Operation Spring Awakening, Sepp Dietrich’s 6th SS Panzer Army retreated in stages to the Vienna area. The Germans desperately prepared defensive positions in an attempt to hold the city against the fast arriving Soviets, in what become known as the Vienna Offensive.
This debacle is famous for the notorious Armelstreifen (Cuff Titles Order) or “armband order” which followed. The order was issued by Hitler to the commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army, Sepp Dietrich. It was issued when it was evident that 6th SS Panzer and, more importantly, the LSSAH had failed him. However, one must remember this so-called failure was in the face of superior forces of the Red Army. Hitler claimed that the troops “did not fight as the situation demanded.” As a mark of disgrace, the units involved were ordered to remove their “Adolf Hitler” cuff titles (German: Ärmelstreifen). In the field Sepp Dietrich was disgusted by Hitler’s order. Dietrich told Obersturmbannführer Maier that the armbands “…would stay on.” Further that the telegram would not be passed on to the troops. A myth arose that a pile of medals was returned in a chamber pot to Hitler, in the same manner as found in the Goethe play Götz von Berlichingen. In actuality, most organisational cuff titles had already been removed to camouflage Operation Spring Awakening.
Part of the LSSAH ended its days fighting in Berlin. On 23 April 1945, Hitler appointed Brigadeführer Mohnke the battle commander for the centre government district (Zitadelle sector) that included the Reich Chancellery and Führerbunker. Mohnke’s command post was under the Reich Chancellery in the bunkers therein. He formed Kampfgruppe Mohnke (Battle Group Mohnke) which was divided into two weak regiments made up of approximately 2,000 men. The core group of his fighting men were the 800 of the Leibstandarte (LSSAH) Guard Battalion (assigned to guard the Führer). After Hitler’s suicide, they received orders to break out. Prior to the breakout, Mohnke briefed all commanders (who could be reached) within the Zitadelle sector about the events as to Hitler’s death and the planned breakout. The breakout started at 2300 hours on 1 May. It was a “fateful moment” for Brigadeführer Mohnke as he made his way out of the Reich Chancellery. He had been the first duty officer of the LSSAH at the building and now was leaving as the last battle commander there. He led the first of ten main groups and attempted to head northwest towards Mecklenburg. Several very small groups managed to reach the Americans at the Elbe’s west bank, but most including Mohnke’s group could not make it through the Soviet rings. Many were taken prisoner and some committed suicide. On 2 May hostilities officially ended by order of Helmuth Weidling, Commandant of the Berlin Defense Area.
After Vienna was captured, the bulk of the LSSAH division surrendered to U.S. forces in the Steyr area on 8 May 1945. The demarcation line between the Soviets and U.S. troops was Enns. Therefore, the roads to Enns were jammed with civilians and soldiers as they hurried to get to the west before 0100 hours on 9 May when the bridges over the river would be blocked. The men of the LSSAH who made it west were marched off to different Prisoner of War camps. Most of the men went to the Ebensee camps for captivity.