“You can’t change history….
You can denounce it, be shocked, appalled or even revolt against the truth, but you can’t deny or ignore it”
The SS: The most feared and formidable fighting arm of WW2. It’s regiments were loyal, devout, and for most of the part unbeaten in the early years of the Second World War. Fanatical and diehard, these were Hitler’s children. They fought, policed and carved Germany’s empire for the Fuhrer. They were, in short, superhuman and believed in total supremacy for the Reich and total annihilation of their enemies.
But who were these supermen? What sort of human fought to the death for honour, for country and for his comrades? Well reading these two books I soon found out of the awesome fighting prowess of both SS Divisions. It’s a complex task but one made pleasurable by the people at Casemate for each title in its own right is superbly laid out and the quality second to none. There are fantastic pictures throughout; some familiar some not, so the books take you on a ride amidst the very heart of Nazi Germany’s fighting machine. Its a journey that will leave you weak and numbed yet educated and thankful.
The Leibstandarte were of course originally Hitler’s bodyguards. Their History in the Nazi war machine was a relatively long one. Formed back in 1923 they served right until the fall of Nazi Germany in 1945. Some of them fighting and dying in the very streets of Berlin. An armoured division, they had the latest in weapons and kit and vehicles and had the cream of the toughest soldiers and most feared yet ablest of leaders. Though often thought of as ceremonial troops in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power they soon established themselves as a tenacious and dangerous enemy with almost superhuman qualities. The Leibstandarte’s rise to power is an impressive one to say the least. Fighting on virtually every European front in WW2, they fought in the successful invasions of both Poland and France and were at the forefront of Operation Barbarossa. The division fought in Normandy and later the Ardennes offensive. They bled their enemies dry of fight and courage and bulldozed most in their path, though it wasn’t to be all their own way. In Normandy, after the Allied invasion on D-Day the SS of the Leibstandarte began to falter somewhat. Bogged down tactically and without replacements getting through in big numbers they soon became squeezed in what was to be known as the Falaise Pocket. After a little over 5,000 casualties the remnants managed to push out through the American lines , much to the anger of the British and the embarrassment of the Yanks. This was one wounded animal that wasn’t going to be trapped. The head may have been cut off from the monster by now but it was still capable of delivering a bite!
Such was the resilient nature of Hitler’s own they still managed to become an incredible fighting force again during the Ardennes offensive and again in 1945, on the Eastern Front were they proved to be hardened professionals in the art of street warfare.
Both books are superbly written with mounds of photographs and sections on the divisions’ histories, fighting formations and key leaders. These books offer a wealth of knowledge to anyone interested in what is still, to some, a touchy subject.
Controversy aside these books are a historical account of two leading SS formations of WW2. There will be some who are instantly judgmental without opening the cover and some whose opinions are so stuck they may not even bother lifting the book up! To them I say leave alone; save your breath. This is historical fact and right or wrong these two SS units were pivotal towards the history of The Second World War. The books aren’t apologetic nor should they be. These are written the best way historical books should be; based on fact and not to a politically correct line or emotion.
That said the books don’t shy away from the controversies that are the SS Leibstandarte or Wiking Divisions. Most notably was the MalmedyMassacre whereby over 80 American troops, all POWs were shot, apparently in cold blood by some of Joachim Pieper’s spearhead troops of the Leibstandarte Division. Actual details of this infamous barbarism are disputed depending on what side of the Atlantic your on but what remains clear is that after the massacre the SS were somewhat reluctant to be taken prisoner by US troops as reprisals were harsh and to the point. That said; this was total war. No quarter was given and none expected; something that the US troops had only just really encountered. There was to be no middle ground where the SS were concerned.
Next Page: SS-Wiking
Equally as controversial was the SS Wiking Division. Made up largely by recruits from foreign volunteers in German occupied countries these men had a do or die attitude. The Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians and Danish all had men in the Wiking ranks, all had sympathies with Nazi idealism and all were equally as brutal and fearless as their German allies. Fighting their war along the Eastern Front in operations like Barbarossa they were embroiled in some of the bitterest fighting in WW2. Kursk, the Korsun Pocket and Warsaw, were all a playing field where battle hardened veterans coached the younger newer recruits. Needless to say they soon became masters of their chosen trade. Well led, equipped and trained they proved practically unstoppable for most of the war.
Even in defeat and retreat they proved to be a formidable force indeed. Of note is one very infamous serving member of The SS Wiking Division – Josef Mengele. A medic and an iron cross winner he was deemed unfit for military service after being wounded whereby he left the frontline and took a roll in the concentration camps run by the SS. He was soon to become one of the world’s most hunted men at the close of the war.
Between them the two Divisions’ dead littered almost every battlefield on the Western and Eastern Fronts. Not a man, women or child would who in some way encountered them would ever forget their legacy of death and destruction. They burnt and plundered and scorched the Earth and many were to pay the ultimate price for this. A fitting end, maybe, for those who fought in the ranks of the two of the most feared fighting units the world has ever seen.
Reviewed by Phil Hodges for War History Online.
The History of the First SS Division.
By Rupert Butler
The History of the Fifth SS Division
By Rupert Butler