3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf

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Not to be confused with SS-Totenkopfverbände, the SS organization responsible for administering the Nazi concentration camps for the Third Reich.
3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf
3rd SS Division Logo.svg
Insignia of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf
Active 1939–1945
Country  Nazi Germany
Branch Flag Schutzstaffel.svg Waffen-SS
Type Armoured
Size Division
Motto Meine Ehre heißt Treue
("My Honor Is Loyalty")
Engagements World War II
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Theodor Eicke
Matthias Kleinheisterkamp
Georg Keppler
Hermann Prieß
Heinz Lammerding
Max Simon
Hellmuth Becker

The 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (skull), also known as the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf and 3rd SS Division Totenkopf during its existence, was one of 38 divisions of the Waffen-SS, the armed wing of the German Nazi Party that served alongside but was never formally part of the Wehrmacht during World War II. Prior to achieving division status, the formation was known as Kampfgruppe (battlegroup) "Eicke". The division is infamous due to its insignia and the fact that most of the initial enlisted soldiers were SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS concentration camp guards), and as such it is sometimes referred to as the "Death's Head Division". Members of the division participated in several war crimes.

The Totenkopf division was one of the "Germanic" divisions of the Waffen-SS. These included 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, and 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking.

Formation and Fall Gelb[edit]

The SS Division Totenkopf was formed in October 1939. The Totenkopf was initially formed from concentration camp guards of the 1st (Oberbayern), 2nd (Brandenburg) and 3rd (Thüringen) Standarten (regiments) of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, and soldiers from the SS-Heimwehr "Danzig".

The division had officers from the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), of whom many had already seen action in Poland. The division was commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke. Through the Battle of France, the division was generally equipped with ex-Czech weapons.[1]

Having missed the Polish campaign, Totenkopf was initially held in reserve during the assault into France and the Low Countries in May 1940. They were committed on 16 May to the Front in Belgium. The Totenkopf soldiers fought fanatically, suffering heavy casualties.

Totenkopf saw action a number of times during the French campaign. To the northeast of Cambrai the division took 16,000 French prisoners. Whilst subsequently trying to drive through to the coast they encountered a major Anglo-French force which they had a great deal of difficulty stopping and came perilously close to panic. Totenkopf had to resort to firing artillery pieces in an anti-tank role, and were saved only by the intervention of Luftwaffe dive-bombers. It then suffered heavy losses during the taking of the La Bassée Canal. Further stiff resistance was then encountered at both Béthune and Le Paradis.The Le Paradis massacre was a war crime committed by members of the 14th Company, SS Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein. It took place on 27 May 1940, during the Battle of France, at a time when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was attempting to retreat through the Pas-de-Calais region during the Battle of Dunkirk.

Kradschützen ("motorcycle infantry") of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf on their way to Leningrad, 1941

The French surrender found the division located near the Spanish border, where it was to stay, resting and refitting, until April 1941. Totenkopf had suffered heavy losses during the campaign, including over 300 officers. Replacement personnel were supplied, this time via regular Waffen-SS recruitment as opposed to coming from the camps. Flak and artillery battalions were added to its strength. Local vehicles were also commandeered from the French, many of the division's soft-skinned transport during Barbarossa was of French origin.

Barbarossa and the Demjansk Pocket[edit]

In April 1941, the division was ordered East to join Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb's Army Group North. Leeb's force was tasked with advancing on Leningrad and formed the northern wing of Operation Barbarossa. Totenkopf saw action in Lithuania and Latvia, and by July had breached the vaunted Stalin Line. The division then advanced past Demjansk to Leningrad where it was involved in heavy fighting from 31 July to 25 August.

Motorcyclists (German: Kradschützen) from the SS Division "Totenkopf" during the invasion of Russia in September 1941
Anti-tank unit of the 3rd SS Panzer, September 1941

During the autumn and winter of 1941, the Soviets launched a number of operations against the German lines in the northern sector of the Front. During one, the Division was encircled for several months near Demjansk in what would come to be known as the Demjansk Pocket. During these kessel (cauldron) battles, Totenkopf suffered so greatly, that due to its reduced size, it was re-designated Kampfgruppe "Eicke". The division was involved in ferocious fighting to hold the pocket. SS-Hauptsturmführer Erwin Meierdress of the Sturmgeschütze-Batterie (Assault Gun) Totenkopf formed a Kampfgruppe of about 120 soldiers and held the strategic town of Bjakowo despite repeated determined enemy attempts to capture it. During these battles, Meierdress personally destroyed several enemy tanks in his StuG III. He was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions during this period. In April 1942, the division broke out of the pocket and managed to reach friendly territory.

At Demjansk, about 80% of its soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action. The remnants of the Division were pulled out of the line in late October, 1942 and sent to France to be refitted. While there, the Division took part in Case Anton, the takeover of Vichy France in November 1942. For this operation, the division was supplied with a Panzer battalion and redesignated 3.SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Totenkopf. The division remained in France until February, 1943, when their old commander, Theodor Eicke, resumed control.

Kharkov – Kursk[edit]

In Early February 1943 Totenkopf was moved back to the Eastern Front as part of Erich von Manstein's Army Group South. The division, as a part of SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser's SS Panzer Corps, took part in the third Battle of Kharkov, blunting the Soviet offensive. During this campaign, Theodor Eicke was killed when his Fieseler Storch spotter aircraft was shot down while on final approach to a front line unit. The division mounted an assault to secure the crash site and recover their commander's body, he was buried with full military honours. Hermann Priess succeeded Eicke as commander.

The SS Panzer Corps, including Totenkopf, was then shifted north to take part in Operation Citadel, the great offensive to reduce the Kursk salient. It was during February 1943 that the 3rd SS Panzer Regiment received a company of Tiger I heavy tanks (9th Company/3rd SS Panzer Regiment). This company was near full strength by the time Citadel commenced, having honed their tank-killing skills during the German counterstroke to recapture Kharkov and Belgorod during the spring of 1943.

The attack was launched on 5 July 1943, after a massive Soviet artillery barrage fell on the German assembly areas. The II SS Panzer Corps (renamed after the formation of the I SS Panzer Corps one month earlier), was to attack the southern flank of the salient as the spearhead for Generaloberst Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army.

The Totenkopf covered the advance on the left flank of the II SS Panzer Corps, with the Leibstandarte forming the spearhead. 3rd SS Panzer Regiment advanced in a panzerkeil (wedge) across the hot and dusty steppe. Despite encountering stiff Soviet resistance and several pakfronts (anti-tank positions), the Totenkopf's panzers continued the advance, albeit at a slower pace than had been planned. Hausser ordered his II SS Panzer Corps to split in two, with the Totenkopf crossing the Psel River northwards and then continuing on towards the town of Prokhorovka.

In the early morning of 9 July, 6th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment "Theodor Eicke" attacked northwards, crossing the Psel and attempted to seize the strategic Hill 226.6, located to the east of the fortified village of Kliuchi. The attack was rebuffed by the defending Soviets. The failure to capture the hill meant that the drive along the north bank of the Psel was temporarily halted, forcing Hausser to also delay the Southern advance. In the afternoon, regiment "Eicke" managed to redeem itself by capturing the hill, but the northern advance slowed and the majority of the division was still south of the Psel, where elements of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 5 Thule continued to advance towards Prokhorovka and cover the flank of the Leibstandarte.

By 11 July, SS-Hauptsturmführer Erwin Meierdress had led his 1st Company/3rd SS Panzer Regiment across the Psel on hastily constructed pontoon bridges, reinforcing the tenuous position. The forces in the bridgehead were subjected to several furious Soviet attacks, but with the support of Meierdress' panzers they held their ground and slowly expanded the bridgehead, securing Kliuchi. Strong Soviet opposition had severely slowed the division's advance along the north bank. In the afternoon of 12 July, near the village of Andre'evka on the south bank of the Psel, the Soviets launched a major counterattack against Regiment Thule and the division's StuG batallion.

SS-Brigadeführer Hermann Priess, the Totenkopf's commander, ordered Meierdress' abteilung (battalion) to advance and support the beleaguered forces. The PzKpfw IIIs and IVs of Meierdress' unit were supported by the Totenkopf's Tiger company, (9th Company/3rd SS Panzer Regiment). In ferocious combat with the lead units of the 5th Guards Tank Army, Meierdress managed to halt the Soviet assault, destroying many Soviet T-34 tanks, but at the cost of the majority of the division's remaining operational panzers.

While the II SS Panzer Corps had halted the Soviet counteroffensive and inflicted heavy casualties, it had exhausted itself and was no longer capable of offensive action. [Wrong: II SS Panzer Corps did in fact some more attacks for example the advance to link up with III Panzerkorps. There were no further attacks of larger scale carried out because the commanders already knew that Operation Citadele is called off and the II SS Panzer Corps is going to be pulled out of that sector.]

Manstein attempted to commit his reserve, the XXIV Panzer Corps, but Hitler refused to authorize this. On 14 July, Hitler called off the operation.

Battles on the Mius Front – Retreat to the Dniepr[edit]

Along with Das Reich, the division was reassigned to General der Infanterie Karl-Adolf Hollidt's reformed 6th Army in the Southern Ukraine. The 6th Army was tasked with eliminating the Soviet bridgehead over the Mius River.

Totenkopf was involved in heavy fighting over the next several weeks. During the July–August battles for Hill 213 and the town of Stepanowka, the division suffered heavy losses, and over the course of the campaign on the Mius-Front, it suffered more casualties than it had during Operation Citadel. By the time the Soviet bridgehead was eliminated, the division had lost 1,500 soldiers; the Panzer regiment was reduced to 20 tanks.

The Totenkopf was then moved north, back to Kharkov. Along with Das Reich, Totenkopf took part in the battles to halt Operation Rumyantsev and to prevent the Soviet capture of the city. Although the two divisions managed to halt the offensive, inflicting heavy casualties and destroying over 800 tanks, the Soviets outflanked the defenders, forcing them to abandon the city on 23 August.

By early September, the Totenkopf reached the Dniepr. Elements of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army had forced a crossing at Kremenchug and were soon threatening to break through the Dniepr line. Totenkopf was thrown into action against the bridgehead.

Soldiers of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf break for a meal beside the wreck of a Soviet T-34 somewhere in Romania, 1944

In October 1943, the division was reformed as 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. The Panzer abteilung was officially upgraded to a regiment, and the two Panzergrenadier regiments were given the honorary titles "Theodor Eicke" and "Totenkopf".

After holding the Kremenchug bridgehead for several months, the Soviets finally broke out, pushing Totenkopf and the other axis divisions involved back towards the Romanian border. By November, Totenkopf was engaged fighting intense defensive actions against Red Army attacks over the vital town of Krivoi Rog to the west of the Dniepr.

Warsaw[edit]

In January 1944, Totenkopf was still engaged in heavy defensive fighting east of the Dniepr near Krivoi Rog, where a breakthrough nevertheless evaded the Soviets, due in great part to the actions of the Totenkopf and the Heer's Panzergrenadier-Division "Großdeutschland". In February 1944, 56,000 German troops were trapped in the Korsun Pocket. Totenkopf was sent towards Cherkassy to assist in the relief attempts. The division attacked towards the city of Korsun, attempting to secure a crossing over the Gniloy-Tilkich river. The 1st Panzer Division, fighting alongside the Totenkopf, achieved a linkup with the encircled forces.

In the second week of March, after a fierce battle near Kirovograd, the Totenkopf fell back behind the Bug River. Totenkopf immediately began taking up new defensive positions. After two weeks of heavy fighting, again alongside the Panzergrenadier-Division "Großdeutschland" west of Ivanovka, the Axis forces again fell back, withdrawing to the Dniestr on the Romanian border near Iaşi.

In the first week of April, Totenkopf gained a moment's respite as it rested in the area near Târgu Frumos in Romania. The division received replacements and new equipment, it's panzer regiment taking charge of a consignment of Panther tanks to replace some of the outdated PzKpfw IVs. In the second week of April, heavy Soviet attacks towards Târgul Frumos meant that Totenkopf was back in action, playing a role in the decisive defensive victory. By 7 May, the front had quietened and the Totenkopf went back to the business of reorganizing.

In a battle near Iaşi, elements of the division, together with elements of the Panzer-Grenadier-Division Großdeutschland, managed to halt an armoured assault by the Red Army. The assault, which in many aspects bore similarities to those of the later British Operation Goodwood, was carried out by approximately 500 tanks.[2]

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April–May 1943—among the SS units involved was the SS Panzer Grenadier Training and Reserve Battalion III Warsaw of the 3rd SS Division[3]

In early July, the division was ordered to the area near Grodno in Poland, where it would form a part of SS-Obergruppenführer Herbert Gille's IV SS Panzer Corps, covering the approaches to Warsaw near Modlin.

After The Soviet Operation Bagration and the destruction of Army Group Centre the German lines had been pushed back over 480 kilometres, to the outskirts of the Polish capital. The Totenkopf arrived at the Warsaw front in late July 1944. After the launch of Operation Bagration and the collapse of Army Group Centre, the central-Eastern Front was a mess; the IV. SS-Panzerkorps was one of the few formations standing in the way of the Soviet advance. On 1 August 1944, the Armia Krajowa (the Polish Home Army), rose up in Warsaw itself. A column of Totenkopf Tigers was caught up in the fighting, and several were lost. The Totenkopf itself was not involved in the suppression of the revolt, instead guarding the front lines, and fighting off several Soviet probing attacks into the city's eastern suburbs.

In several furious battles near the town of Modlin in mid August, the Totenkopf, fighting alongside the 5th SS Panzer Division "Wiking" and the Hermann Göring Panzer Division virtually annihilated the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps, which had contained a division of communist Poles. The terrain around Modlin is excellent for armour, and Totenkopf's panzers exploited this to their advantage, engaging Soviet tanks from a range where the superiority of the German optics and the 75 mm high-velocity gun gave the Panthers an edge over the T-34s.

Budapest Relief Attempts[edit]

The efforts of the Totenkopf, Wiking and Hermann Göring divisions allowed the Germans to hold the Vistula line and establish Army Group Vistula. In December 1944, the IX SS Mountain Corps (Alpine Corps-Croatia) was encircled in Budapest. Hitler ordered the IV SS Panzer Corps to redeploy south to relieve the 95,000 Germans and Hungarians trapped in the city. The corps arrived just before New Year's Eve, and was immediately thrown into action.

The relief attempts were to be codenamed Operation Konrad. The first attack was Konrad I. The plan was for a joint attack by the Wiking and Totenkopf from the town of Tata attacking along the Bicske-Budapest line. The attack was launched on New Year's Day, 1945.

Despite initial gains, Konrad I ran into heavy Soviet opposition near Bicske, during the battle the 1st Battalion, 3rd SS Panzer Regiment's commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Erwin Meierdress was killed.

After the failure of the first operation, Totenkopf and Wiking launched an assault aimed at reaching the city centre. Named Operation Konrad II, the attack was launched on 7 January from just south of Esztergom. It reached as far as Budapest's northern suburbs, by 12 January panzergrenadiers of the "Wiking" division spotted the church spires and turrets of the Hungarian capital's skyline. However, despite its success, Gille's corps was overextended and vulnerable, so it was ordered to fall back as part of a ruse to encircle Soviet units north of the city.

Operation Konrad III got underway on 20 January 1945. Attacking from the south of Budapest, it aimed at encircling ten Red Army divisions. However, the relief forces could not achieve their goal, despite tearing a 24-kilometre hole in the Soviets' line and destroying the 135th Rifle Corps. Although they had been on the verge of rescuing the IX SS Mountain Corps, the encircled troops could not be reached and so therefore capitulated in mid-February. The division was pulled back to the west, executing a fighting withdrawal from Budapest to the area near Lake Balaton, where the 6th SS Panzer Army under SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef Dietrich was massing for the upcoming Operation Frühlingserwachen (Operation Spring Awakening).

Gille's corps was too depleted to take part in the assault, instead it provided flank support to assaulting divisions during the beginning of the operation.

Totenkopf, together with Wiking, performed a holding action on the left flank of the offensive, in the area between Lake Velence-Székesfehérvár. As Frühlingserwachen progressed, the division was heavily engaged, preventing Soviet efforts from outflanking the advancing German forces.

As the offensive stalled, the Soviets launched a major attack, the Vienna Offensive, on 16 March. Attacking the border between the Totenkopf and the Hungarian 2nd Armoured Division, contact was soon lost between the two formations. Acting quickly, the 6th Army commander, Generaloberst Hermann Balck, recommended moving the I SS Panzer Corps north to plug the gap and prevent the encirclement of the IV SS Panzer Corps. Despite this quick thinking, a Führer Order authorising this move was slow in coming, and when the divisions finally began moving, it was too late.

On 22 March, the Red Army encirclement of the Totenkopf and Wiking was almost complete. Desperate, Balck threw the veteran 9th SS Panzer Division "Hohenstaufen", into the area to hold open a route which could be used to withdraw - the Berhida Corridor. In the battle to hold it open, the "Hohenstaufen" bled itself white, but Gille's corps managed to escape.

On 24 March, another Soviet attack threw the exhausted IV SS Panzer Corps back towards Vienna, and all contact was lost with the neighbouring I SS Panzer Corps. This destroyed any resemblance of an organised line of defence. The remnants of the Totenkopf executed a fighting withdrawal into Czechoslovakia. By early-May, they were within reach of the American forces, to whom the division officially surrendered on 9 May. The Americans promptly handed Totenkopf back to the Soviets, and many Totenkopf soldiers died in Soviet Gulags.[4]

War crimes[edit]

The division was involved in several war crimes, most notably a massacre of British soldiers during the Battle of France.

Poland[edit]

Theodor Eicke, who was the commandant of the Dachau concentration camp, inspector of the camps and murderer of Ernst Röhm, later became the commander of the 3 SS Totenkopf Division. With the invasion of Poland, the Totenkopfverbände troops were called on to carry out "police and security measures" in rear areas. What these measures involved is demonstrated by the record of SS Totenkopf Standarte "Brandenburg". It arrived in Włocławek on 22 September 1939 and embarked on a four day "Jewish action" that included the burning of synagogues and the execution en-masse of the leaders of the Jewish community. On 29 September the Standarte travelled to Bydgoszcz to conduct an "intelligentsia action". Approximately 800 Polish civilians and what the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) termed "potential resistance leaders" were killed. The Totenkopfverbände was to become one of the elite SS divisions, but from the start they were among the first executors of a policy of systematic extermination.

Le Paradis Massacre[edit]

Black and white photo of soldiers with a small tank
British prisoners of war with a Pz.Kpfw Ib German tank in Calais in May, 1940

The Le Paradis massacre was a war crime committed by members of the 14th Company, SS Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein. It took place on 27 May 1940, during the Battle of France, at a time when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was attempting to retreat through the Pas-de-Calais region during the Battle of Dunkirk.

Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, had become isolated from their regiment. They occupied and defended a farmhouse against an attack by Waffen-SS forces in the village of Le Paradis. After running out of ammunition, the defenders surrendered to the German troops. The Germans led them across the road to a wall, and machine-gunned them. Ninety-seven British troops died. Two survived, with injuries, and hid until they were captured by German forces several days later.

After the war, Knöchlein was located, tried and convicted by a war crimes court, the two survivors testifying as witnesses against him. For his part in the massacre, Knöchlein was executed in 1949.

Commanders[edit]

SS-Oberführer Max Simon was the "official" commander (on paper) of the 3. SS-Panzer Division from 26 February 1943 - 22 October 1943, but in reality it was SS-Oberführer Hermann Priess who commanded the division in the field during those dates.

Also, SS-Standartenführer Otto Baum covered for SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Priess for one week during March 1944 as commander of the "Totenkopf" Division due to Priess being on leave.[6]

Notable members[edit]

Order of Battle in 1943[edit]

  • Regimental Headquarters
  • SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 5 "Totenkopf" (often incorrectly named "Thule") (Regiment 1 was redesignated Regiment 5 "Thule" on 22 October 1943, one of several redesignations.[7])
    • I.Battalion
    • II.Battalion
    • III. Battalion
  • SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 6 "Theodor Eicke" (formerly Regiment 3 Theodor Eicke)[8]
    • I. Battalion
    • II. Battalion
    • III .Battalion
  • SS Panzer Regiment 3
    • I. Battalion
    • II. Battalion
  • SS Panzerjäger (anti-tank) Battalion 3
  • SS Sturmgeschütz Battalion 3
  • SS Motorized Artillery Regiment 3
  • SS Flak Battalion 3
  • SS Motorized Signals Battalion 3
  • SS Motorized Reconnaissance Battalion 3
  • SS Motorized Pioneer Battalion 3
  • SS Dina 3
  • SS Field Hospital 3
  • SS Combat Reporter Platoon 3
  • SS Military Police Troop 3
  • SS Reserve Battalion 3

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Niehorster, Leo W. G. German World War II Organizational Series, Vol. 2/II: Mechanized GHQ units and Waffen-SS Formations (10 May 1940), 1990
  2. ^ Tamelander M, Zetterling, N, Avgörandets Ögonblick, p. 279.
  3. ^ Axis History Forum
  4. ^ "SS Division Totenkopf". Archived from the original on 14 October 2008. Retrieved 14 October 2008. 
  5. ^ Ullrich, Karl "Wie Ein Fels Im Meer" pg. 13
  6. ^ http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=38&t=136118
  7. ^ Like a Cliff in the Ocean, 2002, Karl Ullrich, page 231, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
  8. ^ Like a Cliff in the Ocean, 2002, Karl Ullrich, page 231, J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

References[edit]