The Waffen-SS was a German military division that aided in the Nazi party’s domination of Europe WWII. Initially consisting of soldiers with little-to-no military training, it eventually became one of Germany’s most highly skilled combat units, thanks to the command of SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner.
Steiner’s early military career
Felix Steiner enlisted in the German military in March 1914 as a cadet with the 5th Infantry Regiment von Bozen. When war broke out, the unit was sent to the Russian border. After recovering from injury, he was promoted to second lieutenant and posted to the Fortress Machine Gun Detachment 1. In 1916, he was transferred to the Lithuanian Front.
After battles around the Düna River and Riga, he was sent to the Western Front as company commander of the Machine Gun Sharpshooter Detachment Ober-Ost 46. There, he saw Germany’s assault troops, the Sturmtruppen, in action and was impressed with their level of skill and camaraderie.
After the war ended, and having reached the rank of first lieutenant, Steiner joined the 1st Infantry Regiment of the Reichswehr. Upon making his way through the ranks, he retired in December 1933. He then became a training advisor, but found himself longing for a more challenging role.
The beginnings of the Waffen-SS
Steiner joined the SS-Verfügungstruppe (V-Truppe) on March 16, 1935, as Obersturmbannführer and appointed commander of the 3rd Battalion/SS-Standart “Deutschland.” With ex-Army officer Paul Hausser, he set out making his soldiers the finest in Europe, staging his training around the tactics of the Sturmtruppen.
Steiner’s training turned military tradition on its head. He focused on athleticism, as opposed to barracks square drills, and he abolished the class system. He also changed the weaponry, swapping out the Mauser rifle for lightweight weapons, such as sub-machine guns, pistols, hand grenades, and explosive charges.
The work put into the V-Truppe’s development paid off. Impressed with the unit, Adolf Hitler signed a decree making it a permanent force within the country’s military. Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler was impressed as well and saw the unit as a stabilizing force within the Nazi regime. Unfortunately for Himmler, Steiner wasn’t fond of him and spoke poorly of both him and the country’s regime.
War breaks out in Europe
The V-Truppe’s first foray into action occurred during the invasion of Poland in August 1939. Joined by the armored Kempf Division, it experienced three days of fighting in Mława and additional artillery fire at the Różan river crossing. With the aid of the 7th Panzer Regiment, they captured the crossing, leading to the capitulation of Modlin Fortress on September 28.
The Deutschland Division continued to hone its skills before being sent to Holland in May 1940. Along with General der Artillerie Albert Wodrig’s XXVI Armeekorps, Steiner’s men were able to breach the Wilhelmina Canal, resulting in the capture of Walcheren on May 17.
Focus soon turned to France, where the German Army had to contend with fierce British resistance. In the Nieppe Forest, with the aid of Hausser’s unit and the 3rd Panzer Division, the Deutschland Division was able to breach enemy lines and reach Lys Canal. After establishing a bridgehead on the opposite side, Steiner made his division the sector’s leading unit.
On June 5, 1940, with the Allies retreating from Dunkirk, Steiner led his men through the Weygand Line and across the Aisne River and the Marne. Despite Paris capitulating on the 14th, the French still put up resistance. This led to a battle near Chatillon between June 16 and 18, for which Steiner was awarded the Knight’s Cross.
The Eastern Front
In November 1940, Himmler promoted Felix Steiner to SS Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen SS and tasked him with organizing a new unit made up of the Nordland, Germania and Westland SS regiments. The vast majority of recruits were non-German volunteers from Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Holland.
Called SS division Wiking, the unit was transported to the Eastern Front, passing into Russia on June 22, 1941. Paired with Generaloberst Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist’s Panzergruppe 1, they moved across the River Dnieper toward Dnepropetrovsk. However, the Soviet Army pushed back with a strong winter offensive toward the end of the year.
Despite the Red Army’s efforts, Steiner’s men held strong and were eventually joined by Sturmbannführer Johannes-Rudolf Mühlenkamp’s panzer unit. In July 1942, they stormed Rostov before crossing to the Caucasus. By September, they’d made it to the land bridge with Asia and became embroiled in fighting along the Terek River.
A new corps and return to the Eastern Front
The success Steiner had with the Wiking Division resulted in him being awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. It also afforded him charge of a new unit, the III (Germanisches) SS Panzercorps, made up of Army and Luftwaffe personnel. Despite fighting exhaustion, Steiner molded them into a cohesive unit.
Steiner’s soldiers were sent to fight Yugoslavian partisans during the summer of 1943. Within a few months, in late November of that year, they were ordered to the Eastern Front. After making the trip north to the Orianenbaum Front of Heeresgruppe Nord, they were joined by ill-equipped Luftwaffe field divisions.
While initial plans were to train new members, the Soviets had other ideas. On January 13, 1944, they unleashed an artillery barrage on the Oranienbaum Pocket, followed by an attack by the Soviet 2nd Shock Army. At the same time, forces with the 42nd Red Army Infantry and nine tank corps attacked German forces in Leningrad.
Realizing Leningrad had fallen, Steiner led his forces across the river Narva and into the western part of the city. Establishing artillery and unit supports, they managed to survive the Battles of Narva and Tannenberg Line. However, the Soviets’ summer offensive against the Heeresgruppe Mitte ravaged the northern front and forced a retreat in late July 1944.
Attack against the 1st Belorussian Front
In January 1945, Felix Steiner was tasked with defending Pomerania with his newly formed 11th SS Panzer Army. The aim was to attack Marshal Georgy Zhukov‘s 1st Belorussian Front, which was making its way toward Germany, and to advance to Küstrin.
Steiner knew it was a suicide mission and suggested a smaller-scale attack to Generaloberst Heinz Guderian. The call ended with Steiner yelling, “Accept my plan or relieve me!” and Guderian responding, “Have it your own way!” The attack began on February 16 and saw two days of successful maneuvers by the 11th Army. However, the Russians pushed forward and forced them back to their original positions.
The small victory gave Hitler hope, and Steiner remained in charge of the 11th Army until turning it over to Army General Walther Lucht in March 1945. On April 21, the Führer was listening to a report detailing the worsening conditions around Berlin. Steiner’s name was mentioned, inspiring Hitler to seat him at the helm of another attack against the Russians.
Steiner turns on Hitler
While hiding out in his bunker, Hitler planned for Steiner and his men, now called the Armeegruppe Steiner, to launch another attack on Zhukov’s forces in order to prevent them from surrounding General der Panzertruppe Hasso von Manteuffel’s 3rd Panzerarmee and advancing on Berlin.
Steiner heard the plan and immediately refused to participate. He’d begun to feel disillusioned with the Führer after a visit from his friend Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg. Anti-Nazi, von der Schulenburg discussed killing Hitler, a conversation that had initially troubled Steiner. Since then, he’d become involved in plans to arrest and kill the Führer, but they’d fallen through.
Staff informed Hitler of Steiner’s inaction. He sent Gotthard Heinrici and Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel to force him to attack, but their attempts failed and the Führer relieved him of his duties on April 27, 1945. Continuing his defiance, Steiner asked the man sent to relieve him if he could continue to serve, and he did so up until he surrendered to the Americans.
By this point, Hitler had conceded that Germany lost the war. A few days after relieving Steiner of his duties, he took his own life.
Steiner’s postwar life
Upon surrender, Felix Steiner was arrested. He faced charges at the Nuremberg Trials, but they were dropped and he was released on April 27, 1948. Five years later, he was recruited by the CIA to help start the Gesellschaft für Wehrkunde (Society for Defence Studies). It was used as a military think tank and propaganda tool for German rearmament.
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Along with publishing books detailing his military experience, he also helped found the Waffen-SS Veteran’s Association, which campaigned for the legal, historical, and economic rehabilitation of the military organization. He was active in the group until May 16, 1966, when he passed away.