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Tactics in
Fading Legions




The 5th SS “Viking” Division
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.

During the winter of 1940-1941, the Waffen SS began to form a division of Western and Northern European volunteers. Earmarked for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, this unit would help bolster the image of the sneak attack as a “Crusade Against Bolshevism” undertaken by all of Europe, not merely a treacherous act by a murderous regime.

Initially called “Germania,” from the SS regiment that provided the first cadre, in March 1941 the name changed to “Viking,” and in April it was declared combat-ready. While German propaganda indeed made much of the foreign element in the unit, a great number of its personnel were in fact German as were most of its senior officers. It did, however, have a considerable advantage over other SS divisions preparing for Operation Barbarossa: recruiters managed to sign up experienced officers from the Dutch, Belgian, Danish and Norwegian armies, some of whom had fought against the Germans the previous year. As with the other “volunteer” divisions, recruitment in occupied and neutral countries allowed the SS to skirt the regular army’s close watch on the German draft pool.

Viking Division Panther tank in Poland, 1945.
Much larger than a typical Army motorized division, Viking fielded three motorized infantry regiments of three battalions each, plus an attached Finnish Volunteer infantry battalion. It also had a four-battalion artillery regiment plus two anti-aircraft battalions and single engineer, reconnaissance and anti-tank battalions. Among its recruits was Josef Mengele, he of the inhuman medical experiments, who served in the engineer battalion and was awarded the Iron Cross.

As with his other formations, Heinrich Himmler had decreed that SS Viking should not fight in the front lines. Rather, it would be deployed against “partisans,” a code phrase widely understood to mean Jews, Party activists and other “undesirables.” The division moved out in Army Group South’s second echelon, and only saw its first action against on 29 June at Tarnopol. Ten days later, its supply column proved themselves true SS men, participating in the massacre of about 60 Jews in the Lviv ghetto.

A Soviet sniper had killed Hjalmar Wackerle, commander of the “Westland” motorized infantry regiment and a favorite of Himmler’s — Wackerle had been the Dachau concentration camp’s first commandant and overseen the murder of several of the Nazi regime’s early opponents. The SS Viking bakery and butcher companies took part in a reprisal organized by the supply column’s commander, Karl Heinz Fanslau. The victims were forced to run a gauntlet of bayonet-wielding SS men, including some Army troopers from the 1st Mountain Division, and then were gunned down by a submachine-gun-wielding Fanslau and other officers at the end of their run.

Throughout the rest of July the division advanced into Ukraine and participated in several more massacres: over 400 Jews in Zhitomir, and over 100 more in Radomyschl. After participating in the drive on Rostov, SS Viking spent the winter of 1941-42 on the line of the Mius River just north of the Black Sea coast. While some of the other SS divisions were pulled out of the line for reorganization, Viking remained at the front and pushed into the Caucasus in the spring of 1942. The division added a tank battalion equipped with new PzKw IIIJ models that summer, formed from a cadre provided by the SS Reich division. In September, the unit formally became SS Panzer Grenadier Division “Viking.”

In 1943 Viking became a panzer division, losing its Finnish battalion but gaining one of Estonian “volunteers.” One of its regiments left to form the cadre of the new SS Nordland Panzer Grenadier division, and in the fall of 1943 the other two became designated the 9th and 10th. A second tank battalion and one of assault guns also joined the division, and in October it was renamed again, this time 5th SS Panzer Division “Viking.” The Viking division fought in the Kursk offensive, finding relatively little success.

Hearts and Minds. Viking Division combat engineer torches a Belorussian village, 1944.
In 1944, the division met repeated disasters. In February, it was trapped in the Korsun Pocket and tasked with leading the attempted breakout. Caught in open ground by waiting Red Army tank and cavalry units, Viking and the accompaying army units suffered heavy casualties. When frightened Aryans attempted to surrender, the “Wiking” silver-on-black cuffs on their sleeves betrayed them, and merciless Cossacks a simply lopped off hundreds of arms.

In June, the division became trapped in another pocket during the Red Army’s Operation Bagration, this time at Cherkassy. Viking again spearheaded the breakout, succeeding but losing all of its armor and many men in the process. Re-formed as a battle-group, the survivors eventually were withdrawn to Poland to rebuild the division. They returned to action that fall, fighting the Red Army near Warsaw. In January the 5th SS went south to participate in the failed attempt to relieve the siege of Budapest, and fought for the rest of the war in Hungary and Czechoslovakia before surrendering to the Soviets in May. A handful of Viking men made it into Austria to give themselves up to the Americans instead.

Viking spent more time at the front than most SS units; its high ratio of foreign recruits made it less favored than the other SS panzer divisions. And while a much better fighting unit than the 6th SS “Nord” or the 7th SS “Trash Division,” neither was it as capable as the first-line SS divisions like 1st or 9th SS Panzer.

The Viking Division appeared in one of our early games, Red Parachutes. Today we have some better-designed counters for the depleted tank force it has in the game, available as a FREE download here.