2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich

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2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich
SS-Panzer-Division symbol.svg
The Wolfsangel
Active 1939–1945
Country  Nazi Germany
Branch Flag Schutzstaffel.svg Waffen-SS
Type Armored
Motto Meine Ehre heißt Treue
("My Honour is Loyalty")
Engagements
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Paul Hausser

The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich was an elite division during World War II. It was one of the thirty-eight divisions fielded by the Waffen-SS. It served during the invasion of France and took part in several major battles on the Eastern Front (particularly in the Battle of Prokhorovka against the 5th Guards Tank Army at the titanic Battle of Kursk). It was then transferred to the West and took part in the fighting in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, ending the war with desperate fighting in Hungary and Austria.

The symbol for the Das Reich division was the wolf's hook, or Wolfsangel. As a whole, the Waffen-SS was found guilty of war crimes in the Nuremberg tribunal, with Das Reich itself being notorious for, amongst others, the Oradour-sur-Glane and Tulle massacres.

History[edit]

Early war and the SS-VT – 1939/1940[edit]

In August 1939 Adolf Hitler placed the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) under the operational command of the OKH - Oberkommando Heer, (German army supreme headquarters). Thus, at the outbreak of hostilities, there were four SS military regiments: Leibstandarte, Deutschland, Germania and the new formation from Austria, Der Führer (although this unit was not yet combat-ready).[1] Events during the Invasion of Poland raised doubts over the combat effectiveness of the SS-VT. Their willingness to fight was never in any doubt; at times they were almost too eager to fight. The OKW - Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (Supreme headquarters, German armed forces) reported that the SS-VT had unnecessarily exposed themselves to risk and acted recklessly, incurring heavier losses than Army troops. They also stated that the SS-VT was poorly trained and its officers unsuitable for command.[1] In its defence, the SS-VT insisted that it had been hampered by its fighting piecemeal instead of as one formation and improperly equipped to carry out what had been required of it.[1] Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, insisted that the SS-VT should be allowed to fight in its own formations, under its own commanders, while the OKW tried to have the SS-VT disbanded altogether.[1] Hitler, unwilling to upset the army and Himmler, chose a different path. He ordered that the SS-VT form its own Divisions but that they would be under Army command.[1]

In October 1939 the Deutschland, Germania and Der Führer regiments were organized into the SS-Verfügungs Division [1][2] and took part in the Campaigns in the West against the Low Countries and France in 1940, first seeing action in the main drive for the Dutch central front and Rotterdam.[3] After that city had been captured, the Division, along with other German formations, intercepted a French force and forced them back to the area of Zeeland and Antwerp. The SS men were next used to mop up small pockets of resistance in the areas already captured by the German advance. The Division was then transferred to France and helped breach a stiffly defended canal line, and subsequently participated in the drive on Paris. At the end of the campaign, it had advanced all the way to the Spanish frontier.

War in the east – 1941[edit]

USSR, 21 June 1941

During the period following the fall of France, the Division was stationed in France preparing for the invasion of England. The Germania regiment was then sent to be the cadre in the formation of a new division, SS Division Germania (later Wiking), and a replacement third regiment was transferred from the Totenkopfverbände (SS Regiment 11); the reorganized formation was re-equipped as a motorized division and renamed the SS-Infanterie-Division (mot.) Reich. The Division was moved to Romania to take part in the Invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece in March 1941. In April 1941, Das Reich took part in the successful capture of Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia.[4][5] On the morning of 12 April, SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Klingenberg and members of his motorcycle assault company approached Belgrade from Pančevo along the bank of the Danube river. Forcing a crossing, Klingenberg crossed the river and approached the Yugoslav capital, proceeding into downtown Belgrade with only six men. Soon after entering the city, Klingenberg encountered a group of twenty Yugoslavian soldiers; they surrendered without firing a shot. Receiving some reinforcements the Das Reich detachment held Belgrade against counterattacks, unfurled a large swastika and raised it over the embassy to declare the capture of the city. Two hours later, the mayor of Belgrade arrived at the embassy and surrendered the city to Klingenberg. It was not until the next day that a sizeable German force arrived to secure the Yugoslav capital. For capturing Belgrade, Klingenberg was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.[6] The Division's next task was to move to occupied Poland to take part in the upcoming German invasion of the Soviet Union. During Operation Barbarossa, Das Reich fought with Army Group Center, taking part in the Battle of Yelnya near Smolensk; it was then in the spearhead to capture Moscow. The war in the Soviet Union was going well but the cost to the Waffen-SS was extreme, Das Reich had lost 60 percent of its strength and was still to take part in the Battle of Moscow; it was decimated in the following Soviet offensive - the Der Führer Regiment was reduced to 35 men out of the 2,000 that had started the campaign in June. With the Soviet capital in sight, weather, massive losses and a major Soviet Winter Counter-Offensive pushed the division back.[7]

Rest and refit – 1942[edit]

After a period of very bloody losses for the Division, Das Reich was pulled out of the fighting and sent to France to refit as a Panzer-Grenadier Division. Part of the formation under Werner Ostendorff was left in the east, and they were titled Kampfgruppe SS-Reich. Ostendorff was to rejoin the division in June 1942.

In November 1942, portions of the division took part in an attempt to prevent the scuttling of the French Fleet at Toulon. Soon after, the division was retitled again, this time to SS-Panzer Grenadier-Division "Das Reich".

Das Reich captured enough T-34 tanks to form the III/Battalion SS Panzer Regiment 2 (April 1943)

Back to the Eastern Front – 1943[edit]

Early in 1943, Das Reich was transferred back to the Eastern Front, where it helped reclaim the crumbling central front around Kharkov. After helping to recapture Kharkov, Das Reich, along with many other divisions, was thrown into a massive assault in the Kursk salient, a huge bulge in the German front line around the area of Kursk and Byelgorod. Das Reich pushed over 64 km (40 mi)[citation needed] into the southern sector of the bulge, but was pulled out of the battle along with the other SS divisions when the offensive was called off. It was soon sent back to try to halt the Soviet counterattack (Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev). Along with the 3rd SS Totenkopf, Das Reich launched a counterattack against two Soviet tank armies, which had achieved a significant breakthrough. During the following battles the two SS divisions destroyed much of the Soviet armor, up to 800 tanks. Further Soviet reinforcements stopped the German counterattack.

Das Reich Tiger tanks, Kursk July 1943

After a brief period of fighting, Das Reich was refitted once again, this time as SS Panzer Division "Das Reich". In doing so, it left a portion of the division in the East titled Kampfgruppe "Das Reich", also known as Kampfgruppe Lammerding. The rest of the division was transferred to the West to refit, and while doing so, took part in anti-partisan operations in France, and perpetrated the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane.

In winter 1943–1944 another massive Soviet winter counter-offensive managed to encircle German units in the center of the front. Kampfgruppe "Das Reich" was one of the units affected, but an assault by II SS Panzer Corps managed to rescue the trapped elements of Das Reich. In February 1944 the Kampfgruppe was transferred to France to join the rest of the Division already stationed there. The remaining small portion of the division left in the East was renamed Kampfgruppe Weidinger and was involved in the retreats through Proskurov and Tarnopol. Most of Das Reich was stationed in the southern French town of Montauban north of Toulouse, where it received new equipment and freshly trained troops.

The Battle of Normandy and fighting in the West – 1944[edit]

When ordered to the Normandy battle front, Das Reich was delayed by fifteen days through a concerted programme of sabotage organised by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the French Resistance. Some argue this delay was of significant help in the success of the D-Day landings.[8] However, the majority of the "Das Reich" division arrived in their designated billeting area just behind the front near St. Lo, on schedule, in mid-June 1944, but were held back as "Army Group Reserve" for possible German counter-attack by the 7. Armee that never took place.[9]

After the D-Day invasion, Das Reich was committed piecemeal (at first only the I. "Der Führer" and I. "Deutschland" attached to the Panzer-Lehr-Division) to stop the Allied advance, and took part in the attempts to stop the Americans near Saint-Lô alongside the Panzer-Lehr-Division. Das Reich panzer commander Ernst Barkmann became famous for the creation of 'Barkmann's Corner', where he destroyed numerous American tanks in small skirmishes. The Division recaptured Mortain, but was forced to retreat when it became apparent the Allies were going to encircle the Division along with a large number of other German elements in the Falaise pocket. Thanks to the efforts of Das Reich along with the 9th SS Panzer Division "Hohenstaufen," a large number of German forces were able to escape the pocket and retreat to the east.

An armored SdKfz 251 half-track of the 2.SS-Panzer division "Das Reich" and the corpse of a German soldier near Mortain, 12 August 1944

Withdrawn across the Seine River and then behind the 'West Wall' fortifications in Germany, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich took part in the Battle of the Bulge to punch through the Ardennes Forest in an attempt to reclaim the port of Antwerp on 16 December 1944. Coming within 37 km (23 mi) of the River Meuse, the Division was halted at Manhay on 25 December, and then slowly smashed by Allied counter-attacks.

The end – 1945[edit]

Pulled out of the offensive, Das Reich was transferred into Germany to refit again, then to Hungary to take part in the Lake Balaton Offensive in early and mid-March. The attack failed, and Das Reich spent the remaining few weeks of the war more or less performing a fighting retreat through Vienna to the area north of Linz, where the unit surrendered to the Americans in May 1945.

Achievements[edit]

The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich was honored with 69 Knight's Crosses, 151 German Crosses in Gold and 29 Honor Roll Clasp recipients. It also boasted three Swords and 10 Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross holders. Cumulatively, more high award-winners served in its ranks than any other division in the Waffen-SS. A two volume history encompassing in detail the Division's German Cross in Gold, Roll of Honor Clasp, and Close Combat Clasp in Gold holders has been published.[10][11]

Its Panzer Regiment (2nd SS Panzer) collected 20 Knight's Crosses and 17 German Crosses in Gold during 111 weeks of combat, destroying 1,730 tanks and assault guns, for the loss of 500 panzers.[12] Overall the unit destroyed more than 3,000 enemy tanks in the course of its combat history, more than any other German field division. An apology of the Division was written by former Regiment "Der Führer" commander Otto Weidinger as well as a history of his own Regiment for which he was the last wartime commander.

One of the War crimes took place at Laclotte Castle on 7 June 1944. At right, the location where civilians were shot.

War crimes[edit]

Oradour-sur-Glane[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Oradour-sur-Glane.
Burned out cars and buildings still litter the untouched remains of the original village of Oradour-sur-Glane

The division is infamous for the massacre of 642 French civilians in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane on 10 June 1944 in the Limousin region. SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, commander of the I Battalion, 4th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment (Der Führer) that committed the massacre, claimed that it was a just retaliation due to partisan activity in nearby Tulle and the kidnapping of Helmut Kämpfe, although the German authorities had already executed ninety-nine people in the Tulle murders, following the killing and maiming of some forty German soldiers in Tulle by the Maquis resistance movement.

On 10 June, Diekmann's battalion sealed off Oradour-sur-Glane, and ordered all the townspeople to assemble in the village square, ostensibly to have their identity papers examined, but in reality to determine who was a partisan and/or giving aid to the maquis. All the women and children were locked in the church while the village was searched. Having found multiple stores of weapons and ammunition secretly hidden in the village, Diekmann ordered the village to be burned as a hub of partisan activity.[13] Consequently, the ammunition that was hidden exploded in the fires, causing the nearby church (where the women and children were being held) to catch fire accidentally.[14] Although some attempts were made to assist the townspeople by the German soldiers,[15] many died in the fire. The French resistance later used this incident as "evidence" of German barbarism for various political motives, including the continued assistance of the Maquis partisans by the French civilian population.[16]

One of the six survivors of the massacre, Robert Hebras, described the killings as a deliberate act of mass murder. In 2013, he told the U.K. newspaper The Mirror that the SS intentionally burned men, women, and children after locking them in the church and spraying it with machine gun fire. “It was simply an execution. There were a handful of Nazis in front of us, in their uniforms. They just raised their machine guns and started firing across us, at our legs to stop us getting out. They were strafing, not aiming. Men in front of me just started falling. I got caught by several bullets, but I survived because those in front of me got the full impact. I was so lucky. Four of us in the barn managed to get away because we remained completely still under piles of bodies. One man tried to get away before they had gone – he was shot dead. The SS were walking around and shooting anything that moved. They poured petrol on bodies and then set them alight."[17]

Marcel Darthout's experience was similar. His testimony appears in historian Sara Farmer's 2000 book Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. "We felt the bullets, which brought me down. I dove ... everyone was on top of me. And they were still firing. And there was shouting. And crying. I had a friend who was lying on top of me and who was moaning. And then it was over. No more shots. And they came at us, stepping on us. And with a rifle they finished us off. They finished off the buddy who was on top of me. I felt it when he died."

Darthout and Hebras' eyewitness testimony was corroborated by other survivors of the massacre. One other survivor, Roger Godfrin, escaped from the school for refugees despite being shot at by SS soldiers . Only one woman, Marguerite Rouffanche, survived from the church. She later testified that at about five in the afternoon, two German soldiers placed a crate of explosives on the altar and attached a fuse to it. She and another women and her baby hid behind the sacristy; after the explosion they climbed on a stool and jumped out of a window three meters from the ground. A burst of machine gun fire hit all of them, but Rouffanche was able to crawl into the presbytery garden. The woman and infant were killed.

[18]

Approximately 642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane had been killed. Sylvester Stadler, commander of the "Der Führer" regiment (of which a portion were involved in this incident) began a court martial investigation against Diekmann for disobeying his orders to avoid destruction if possible, since at the time Stadler believed the Maquis still had not murdered Helmut Kämpfe.[19] Diekmann was killed in the battle of Normandy, before the investigation. On 12 January 1953, a military tribunal in Bordeaux, heard the case against the surviving sixty-five of the approximately two hundred German soldiers who had been involved. Only twenty-one of them were present. Seven of them were Germans, but fourteen were Alsatians, (French nationals of German ethnicity). On 11 February, twenty defendants were found guilty, but were released after only a few months for lack of evidence. In December 2011 German police raided the homes of six former members of the division, all aged 85 or 86, to determine exactly what role the men had played that day.[20]

Tulle murders[edit]

Main article: Tulle murders

After a successful FTP offensive on 7 and 8 June 1944, the arrival of Das Reich troops forced the guerillas to evacuate the city of Tulle. On June 9, 1944, after arresting all men between the ages of sixteen and sixty, the SS and members of the SD ordered 120 of the prisoners to be hanged, of whom 99 were first tortured.

Commanders[edit]

Order of battle[edit]

1941 – 1942[edit]

  • SS Infantry Regiment Deutschland
  • SS Infantry Regiment Der Führer
  • 11th SS Infantry Regiment
  • 2nd SS Artillery Regiment
  • 2nd SS Sturmgeschütz Battery
  • 2nd SS Motorcycle Battalion
  • 2nd SS Reconnaissance Battalion
  • 2nd SS Panzerjäger (anti-tank) Battalion
  • 2nd SS Pionier Battalion
  • 2nd SS Signal Battalion
  • 2nd SS Rocket Battalion
  • 2nd SS Supply Battalion
  • 2nd SS Medical Battalion
  • 2nd SS Reserve Battalion

1944 – 1945[edit]

  • 2nd SS Panzer Regiment
  • 3rd SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment Deutschland
  • 4th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment Der Führer
  • 2nd SS Panzer Artillery Regiment
  • 2nd SS Motorcycle Battalion
  • 2nd SS Sturmgeschütz Battalion
  • 2nd SS Reconnaissance Battalion
  • 2nd SS Panzerjager Battalion
  • 2nd SS Flak Battalion
  • 2nd SS Pionier Battalion
  • 2nd SS Signal Battalion
  • 2nd SS Rocket Launcher Battalion
  • 2nd SS Supply Battalion
  • 2nd SS Maintenance Battalion
  • 2nd SS Medical Battalion

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Flaherty 2004, p. 149.
  2. ^ Windrow 1992, p. pp=7–8.
  3. ^ Flaherty 2004, p. 152.
  4. ^ Flaherty 2004, p. 163.
  5. ^ Blau (1953), 5–7
    • "Greece, History of". Encyclopaedia "The Helios". * Svolopoulos (1997), 288
  6. ^ Heaton 1998.
  7. ^ Flaherty 2004, p. 168.
  8. ^ Vickers 2000, p. [page needed].
  9. ^ Weidinger|Das Reich V|p=68
  10. ^ Yerger 2003, p. [page needed].
  11. ^ Yerger 2005, p. [page needed].
  12. ^ Fey & Henschler 2003, p. 351.
  13. ^ Weidinger, Das Reich V, pg. 61
  14. ^ Weidinger, Das Reich V, pg. 63
  15. ^ Weiding, Das Reich V, pg. 65
  16. ^ Generalmajor Fischer, letter dated June 12, 1965
  17. ^ http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/robert-hebras-last-witness-of-nazi-1569947#ixzz31Qazz900
  18. ^ Farmer, Sarah. Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane. University of California Press, 2000.
  19. ^ Weidinger, Das Reich V, pg. 64
  20. ^ Ex-SS soldiers face massacre charges
  21. ^ Reinbold 2002.

Bibliography[edit]