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SS Division Totenkopf
SS Division Totenkopf
SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf
3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf
SS Division Totenkopf was one of the thirty-eight divisions fielded by the Waffen-SS during World War II. Totenkopf’s military record was tarnished by numerous war crimes and by the fact that most of the enlisted men had been SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS concentration camp guards).
The Totenkopf division was numbered with the "Germanic" divisions of the Waffen-SS. These included also the 1st SS Division Liebstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Division Das Reich, and 5th SS Division Wiking (though the divisions did not actually have numbers assigned to their names until 1943).
Formation and Fall Gelb
The SS Division Totenkopf ("Death's Head") was formed in October 1939. The Totenkopf was formed from concentration camp guards and men from the SS-Heimwehr Danzig. The division was officered by men from the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT ), many of whom had seen action in Poland. The division was commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke.
Having missed the Polish campaign, Totenkopf was held in reserve during the initial assault into France and the Low Countries in May 1940. They were committed on May 16th to the Front in Belgium. The Grenadiers of the division fought fanatically, suffering heavy losses.
Within a week of this initial commitment the division's first war crime had already been committed. At Le Paradis 4th Kompanie, I Abteilung, commanded by SS-Obersturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, machine-gunned 97 out of 99 British officers and men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment after they had surrendered to them; two survived. After the war, Knöchlein was tried and convicted for war crimes. He was sentenced to death and hung.
Totenkopf fought in the later stages of the French campaign, seeing its only real action against colonial troops at Tarare. The French surrender found the division located near the Spanish border, where it was to stay, resting and refitting, until April 1941.
Barbarossa – Demjansk Pocket
in April 1941, the division was ordered East to join Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North. Totenkopf saw action in Lithuania and Latvia, and by July had breached the vaunted Stalin Line. The division then advanced by Demjansk to Leningrad where it was involved in heavy fighting from July 31st to August 25th.
During 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 of these operations, the Division was encircled for several months near Demjansk in what would come to be known as the Demjansk Pocket . Totenkopf suffered so greatly during these battles that it was re-designated Kampfgruppe Eicke because of its reduced size. In April 1942, the division broke out of the pocket and managed to reach friendly lines.
The remnants of the Division were pulled out of action in late October, 1942 and sent to France to be refitted. While in France, 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 regiment and redesignated SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf. The division remained in France until February, 1943, when their old commander, Theodor Eicke, resumed control.
Kharkov - Kursk - Battles on the Mius
In Early February 1943 Totenkopf was transferred 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 II SS Korps, took part in the 3rd Battle for Kharkov , blunting the Soviet General Konev’s offensive. During this campaign, Theodor Eicke, while flying above enemy lines in a Fiesler Storch spotter aircraft, was shot down and killed. The division mounted an assault to break through enemy lines and recover their commander’s body, and thereafter Eicke’s body was buried with full military honours. Hermann Priess succeeded Eicke as commander
II SS Korps, including Totenkopf, was then shifted north to take part in Operation Citadel, the great offensive to reduce the Kursk salient. It was during this period that The 3.SS-Panzerregiment received a company of Tiger 1 heavy tanks. (9./SS-Panzerregiment 3). Totenkopf, along with the Leibstandarte and Das Reich, took part in the huge armoured engagements around Prokhorovka . After several weeks of heavy fighting, the Operation was called off and Totenkopf, suffering from heavy losses in the battle, was switched to defensive operations.
Along with Das Reich, the division was reassigned to General der Infanterie Karl-Adolf Hollidt ’s 'new' 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 it suffered more casualties than it had during Operation Citadel. By the time the Soviet bridgehead was eliminated, the division had lost 1500 men dead and the Panzer regiment was reduced to 20 tanks.
The Totenkopf was then moved North, back to Kharkov. Along with Das Reich and Wiking, Totenkopf, took part in the battle to prevent the Soviet capture of the city. Despite the losses inflicted on the Soviet forces (over 1000 Red Army tanks were destroyed), Kharkov fell.
The division then took part in the fighting withdrawal to the Dniepr river and remained in heavy defensive fighting for the rest of the year.
In October 1943, the division was reformed as 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf, with its two Panzergrenadier regiments giving the honorary titles Theodor Eicke and Thule.
The Retreat – Warsaw – Budapest
Totenkopf was involved in a fighting retreat as the Eastern front crumbled thorough the first half of 1944. It was involved in the fighting around Krivoi-Rog and Cherkassy early in the year, then transferred to SS-Obergruppenführer Herbert Otto Gille ’s 6th SS Panzer Korps near Warsaw. The 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking was also a part of this corps.
After The Soviet Operation Bagration and the destruction of Army Group Centre the German lines had been pushed back over 300 miles, to the outskirts of Warsaw. With the advent of the Warsaw Uprising, Totenkopf was sent in to help reclaim the city. It was then involved in heavy fighting, first against the Polish Home Army and then against Soviet units. Totenkopf eventually pushed the Soviets out of the outskirts of the city and the situation seemed stable for the time being.
At the end of 1944 Totenkopf was moved with the IV SS Panzer Korps south to help rescue encircled German and Hungarian troops in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Totenkopf and Wiking launched an assault aimed at the city centre. It reached as far as the Budapest Airport, but was ordered to fall back as part of a ruse to encircle Soviet units north of the city. The division had been on the verge of rescuing 45,000 trapped Germans, but when the High Command realised that the Soviets would not fall for their trap, and ordered a renewal of Totenkopf’s offensive, the Soviet defense had stiffened and the trapped Germans and Hungarians had to be abandoned to their fate.
The division was pulled back to the west, and after a fighting withdrawal from Budapest to Vienna, the division surrendered to the Americans on May 9th 1945. The Americans promptly handed Totenkopf back to the Soviets, and many Totenkopf soldiers died in Soviet Gulags.
Totenkopf War Crimes
Above all the Germanic SS Divisions, Totenkopf has the blackest history with regard to war crimes.
The division's original cadre was drawn from the SS-Totenkopfverbande (concentration camp guards), as opposed to the other Germanic SS Divisions which were formed from the SS-Verfugungstruppe. While the SS-VT had been trained by such brilliant military leaders as Paul Hausser, Felix Steiner and Georg Keppler ; the SS-TV was trained and led by fanatical Nazis like Theodor Eicke, Max Simon and Helmut Becker . Eicke imbedded into his men a ruthless nature, and During the training period in Dachau, the troops commonly spent time guarding inmates at the nearby concentration camp. The three SS-TV Standartes which were to form the Totenkopf division saw action in Poland, where they were involved in numerous War Crimes.
By the time Totenkopf went into action, it was filled with highly indoctrinated and ruthless men, some of whom were already war criminals. The spate of war crimes in France and in Russia in 1941-2 left the Totenkopf with a reputation for criminal activities.
Only several days into the Fall Gelb campaign, Totenkopf men were implicated in War Crimes. 14./III.Bat/Totenkopf Infanterie Regiment-2 executed 97 British troops of the Norfolk Regiment at the town of Le Paradis . The commander, SS-Obersturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, had accused the Norfolks of using dum-dum ammunition and therefore being in violation of the Geneva Convention. After the war, Knöchlein was found guilty of war crimes and hanged.
However, it must be remembered that the division had experienced virtually a complete turnover in personnel by the end of 1942. The high casualty rates meant that, by late 1943, virtually none of the original cadre were left. The reputation, however, lingered, and in 1945, when the division was turned over by the americans to the Soviets, both innocent and guilty Totenkopf men were sent to their deaths in the Gulags, or shot without trial.
From the first crime at Le Paradis, only several days into the French Campaign, the Totenkopf proved time and time again that it operated outside the rules of war. Also note that at the time of the massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, Heinz Lammerding, and ex-Totenkopf officer, was in command of Das Reich.
Order of Battle – As of 1943
3.SS Panzer Division ‘’Totenkopf’’
- Stab der Division
- 5.SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Thule
- 6.SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment Theoder Eicke
- 3.SS-Feldlazarett, etc
- Totenkopf (the "Death's Head" symbol)
- Panzergrenadier, Panzer, Panzer division
- Division (military), Military unit, List of German divisions in WWII
- Totenkopfverbände, Waffen-SS, SS
- Pipes, Jason. "3.SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf". Retrieved April 5, 2005.
- Ullrich, Karl (2002). Like a Cliff in the Ocean: A History of the 3rd SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf. JJ Fedorowicz. ISBN 092199169X.
- Wendel, Marcus (2005). "3. SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf". Retrieved April 5, 2005.
- "SS-Division Totenkopf". German language article at www.lexikon-der-wehrmacht.de. (Follow links for the entire unit history.) Retrieved April 5, 2005.
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