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Alsace 1945:
Evil Mountaineers

The SS Division Nord entered combat in June 1941 and immediately gained a reputation as the worst combat formation in the German armed forces. The Nord unit went into action in central Finland, at first on the Salla front and then at Kestenga.

Nord had been formed from two “standarten” of the SS, occupation troops happily terrorizing the people of Prague and Brno in Czechoslovakia. The “combat group” went to northern Norway in April and May 1941, and transferred into Finland in early June. On the 17th Nord officially became a motorized infantry division and received a new command staff, and on the 29th the SS men had their first taste of combat at Salla.

Even the division’s veterans call Salla a disaster, and the reality is worse. Terrified Aryans ran screaming into the thick forests, some never to be seen again, while other panicked SS men showed up at Army headquarters dozens of miles behind the front. The thick forests and heavy smoke from forest fires disoriented the troops, and when faced with actual armed opponents instead of Czech civilians, the unit completely fell apart. We covered several of these actions on the tactical level in Panzer Grenadier: Edelweiss.

SS Nord did little better when it returned to combat at Kestenga later in the year. By the end of 1941, it had suffered severe casualties. Over the winter of 1941-42 it received replacements from the general pool of Waffen SS recruits, supposedly younger and better trained than the SS-men of the original formation.

SS Nord officially became a mountain division in January 1942, and later in 1942 became the 6th SS Mountain Division “Nord.” The rebuilt division fought against the Soviet spring offensive in 1942 and this time managed to hold its lines. Throughout the rest of 1942 and through 1943 it remained on the Kestenga front, which now became a quiet backwater. The German high command never seriously contemplated withdrawing the SS division, indicating that its combat reputation remained low.

In the summer of 1944 the Soviets opened a massive offensive on all parts of the Finnish front, including the Kestenga sector. SS Nord held its lines in heavy fighting, until ordered to withdraw from Finland. At this point, Nord’s troopers proved they were indeed SS men, burning down the Finnish town of Rovaniemi as they passed through (the act was probably committed by Norwegian SS volunteers, though Rovaniemi was the site of the division’s 1941 disgrace, when Nord troopers showed up at Army headquarters there claiming Soviet tanks were hot on their heels). SS Nord clashed with the Finnish 11th Division as it headed toward Norway, and a special order from Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, was read to the division’s troops promising reprisals against the family members of anyone who took advantage of the situation to defect to Sweden.

The SS men proceeded from the Norwegian border south to Denmark by foot, train and ship. The division was slated for participation in the German offensive in the Ardennes known as the Battle of the Bulge, but did not assemble in Aarhus, Denmark, until 20 December, several days after the attack had already begun. Instead, the division was alloted to Operation Nordwind in Alsace.

SS Nord by this point consisted of two mountain infantry regiments, the 11th (named for the war criminal Reinhard Heydrich, executed by partisans in 1942 but known to many of the regiment’s older veterans from their time in Prague) and 12th (which stained the name of Michael Gaissmaier, a 16th-century Tirolese war hero). As a holdover from its days as a motorized infantry division, Nord also included the 506th SS Panzer Grenadier Battalion, a motorized infantry unit usually deployed as the divisional reserve.

The Norwegian 504th SS Ski Battalion had also been part of the division in Finland, but remained in Norway when the rest of the division headed south. One of the odder aspects of the Waffen SS as an institution is that despite a near-total disregard for international law and a lengthy list of war crimes, it honored its commitment not to deploy the Norwegian volunteers against anyone but the Soviet Union (though the ski battalion did fight the Finns during the retreat).

In Denmark, the troops received additional weapons and new uniforms before arriving at the front lines just before New Year’s Day. Nord was the largest German division involved in Nordwind, and it had young and fit personnel compared to regular Army outfits. By 2 January, part of the division (12th Regiment and 506th Battalion) went into action against the U.S. 45th Infantry Division, attached to 361st Volksgrenadier Division. For six days the SS men fought in and around the town of Wingen, finally being pushed back by the Americans with most of the battle group killed or captured.

On the 16th, the 11th SS Mountain Regiment surrounded six companies of the American 157th Infantry Regiment. The Americans surrendered three days later, losing 482 men, and the entire SS division advanced for four more days before being mauled by American counterattacks.

The SS mountain division remained on the western front after the Nordwind offensive, fighting the Americans around Trier on the Moselle River in March before going into 7th Army’s reserve in April. By this point the division had lost most of its heavy weapons (officially to fuel shortages) and was grossly understrength. In May 1945, the unit’s survivors surrendered to the Americans.

Sixty years later, despite overwhelming documentation to the contrary, a sad myth persists that the Waffen SS was an elite fighting force of common soldiers who had nothing to do with Adolf Hitler’s program of mass murder. While Nord may have lacked the criminal record of better-known units, this was mostly due to lack of opportunity: there were few Jews to massacre in the Arctic wilderness, and the unit went immediately into combat on the Western front where it was smashed by the Americans.