Kursk: South Flank
The Empire Division
The SS Panzer Corps (re-named II SS Panzer Corps just before the Battle of Kursk) went into action with three divisions. The Armed SS was not a branch of the German armed forces, but rather one of the Nazi Party. Therefore, it’s more accurate to call them “party militia” rather than “soldiers.”
The oldest of the three divisions, named “Das Reich” or “The Empire,” began as the only Waffen SS division, known at first as the “Special Duty Troops.” The division included three of the four independent SS regiments that had seen action in Poland, grouped together on April Fools’ Day 1940 to form a division. The new division saw action in the Netherlands, taking a bloody nose from the Dutch in front of Rotterdam, and saw some second-line duty in France, suffering a serious defeat at the hands of the BEF. One of the division’s officers, Ernst-Henning Graf von Hardenberg, would later claim that he had been dismissed from the SS for his failure to execute a wounded Black French soldier, but he appears to have been actually drummed out of the militia for engaging in homosexual acts.
After the campaign, the division added the 11th SS Regiment in exchange for the Germania regiment, which went to form the cadre for the new Viking Division. Re-named “Empire,” the division trained for the invasion of England but went instead to the Balkans where it was present at the fall of Belgrade. Militiamen from the Empire Division were responsible for the murders of at least 305 civilians in the Voivodina, the region north of Belgrade.
Like all of the SS formations, the Empire Division’s reputation would benefit from a coordinated post-war effort to burnish the actions of the party militia, emphasizing their battlefield achievements (such as they were) while ignoring their wave of war crimes. That initial effort by former SS members (it’s not really correct to call them “veterans,” as they were not soldiers) would be picked up and carried on by a new generation of admirers, decades after the war.
Organized as a motorized infantry division, Empire (like other SS divisions) was much larger than similar Army divisions, with three regiments instead of two, and generous allotments of anti-aircraft guns (not only a divisional battalion, but an additional company attached to each regiment). Empire went into the campaign at a strength of 19,021 men.
One of the T34 tanks of The Empire.
That made the formation very difficult to employ in combat, as it took up more than twice as much road space as an Army motorized infantry division but delivered no more combat power.
Empire participated in the invasion of the Soviet Union, assigned to Army Group Center. Like other SS divisions, Empire was kept out of the heaviest fighting during the initial weeks of combat: in part because Regular Army commanders had little confidence in the militia’s fighting prowess, and in part because of the massive road presence.
Once committed to action at Yelni’a in July and August, the division suffered very heavy losses and had to be withdrawn from the front for re-fitting. Re-committed in late September, it participated in the failed drive on Moscow and helped massacre civilians outside Minsk. Once again losses stacked up like cordwood as the Party activists leading the companies and battalions showed poor knowledge of basic infantry tactics. By March 1942, Empire had suffered over 10,000 casualties. The division’s remnants transferred to France to be re-organized as a panzer grenadier division. It served on garrison duty and took part in the occupation of Vichy France in November 1942.
Now re-named “The Empire,” the division returned to the Eastern Front in January 1943 as a much different formation. The number of motorized infantry regiments dropped from three to two. One of these rode in Volkswagen Kubelwagens as a “fast” regiment (the SS had trouble acquiring heavy trucks, but had a close association with Volkswagen), and had lighter support weapons (no 150mm infantry guns, and fewer 75mm weapons). It had a tank battalion, joined by a second tank battalion in November, 1942, plus motorcycle, anti-aircraft, engineer, anti-tank and reconnaissance battalions. It had also become much more proficient thanks to nine months of large-unit training.
SS boss Heinrich Himmler inspects one of The Empire's new Tiger tanks. April 1943.
In February The Empire abandoned the major city of Kharkiv in Ukraine despite a direct order from Adolf Hitler to hold Kharkiv at all costs. When the Germans went on the counter-offensive, The Empire re-captured central Kharkiv in three days of bloody street fighting, again in direct contravention of orders. With the rest of the newly-formed SS Panzer Corps, The Empire then fought at Belgorod before withdrawing from the front to prepare for the German summer offensive at Kursk.
For the Kursk attack it gained a company of Tiger tanks. It also fielded two dozen captured T34 tanks, taken at the Kharkov Locomotive Works in early March and refurbished there by the division’s maintenance technicians. Despite the division’s political influence, only one of its six panzer grenadier battalions rode in armored halftracks, with the rest of them in trucks.
The Empire, like the other SS divisions, suffered only minimal tank losses. The supposedly climactic tank battle at Prokhorovka cost it all of six tanks. It did suffer 2,730 personnel losses, or some 13.7 percent of its strength. The tanks stayed in reserve for most of the battle and the infantry bore the brunt of the fighting.
Following the failure at Kursk, the division saw more action west of Kursk during July and August before withdrawing to France for another round of re-fitting. The division was re-named the 2nd SS Panzer Division, though it had already fielded a stronger armored component than most army panzer divisions for over a year. The replacements included many conscripts, often lacking the fanatic commitment of the Nazi volunteers who’d previously manned the division. SS officials claimed they would learn to behave as Nazis; events would prove them right. Even a few former Soviet prisoners of war joined the ranks.
When the division returned to combat, its men showed themselves true SS troopers. Its new commander, Heinz Bernard Lammerding, was by most accounts obsessed with repressing French resistance and balked at bringing his division to the front. Already on 11 May 1944 division militiamen had participated in the murders of a number of civilians under the guise of “reprisals for partisan activity.”
Ordered to Normandy, along the way the divisional reconnaissance battalion was ordered to assist an army unit in Tulle under attack by French resistance fighters. The SS men arrived on 9 June 1944, after the 95th Security Regiment had the situation under control, and proceeded to retaliate for the attacks, randomly selecting 97 French civilians and hanging them from lamp posts. Another 321 were kidnapped and sent to Germany as forced laborers.
American artillery has claimed these militiamen. Mortain, August 1944.
The next day, Maj. Helmut Kampfe of the 3rd Battalion, “The Leader” Panzer Grenadier Regiment, disappeared near Oradour-sur-Glane. Whether he was kidnapped and killed by resistance fighters, or deserted on the way to the battlefield (not an uncommon event), is still unclear. What is clear is that his best friend, Maj. Otto Dickmann, commander of the regiment’s 1st Battalion, wanted vengeance for his missing friend. At his direction, SS men rounded up the village’s entire population and separated the men from the women and children. The militia took the men to garages and shot them; they herded the women and children into the village church and then set it alight. In all, the militia murdered a total of 648 civilians.
When committed against armed opponents, the division fought the British and Canadians near Caen and the Americans at Mortain. Pulled out of action in September, The Empire returned in the Ardennes offensive in December, only to be crushed by the U.S. 3rd “Spearhead” Armored Division. The Empire then went to Hungary for Germany’s last offensive, and this time there would be no re-fit. Constant fighting ground down the unit, and in May its remnants fled to surrender to the Americans.
For a division that existed throughout the war, The Empire spent only a brief time in combat. Most of its major operations came after a prolonged period deep in the German rear areas, and it went into action at or over full strength in men and weapons. Despite that, The Empire achieved relatively little on the battlefield. Like other SS divisions, it also compiled a horrifying record of atrocities and criminal acts –- fifty years after the Battle of the Bulge, American veterans would refuse to share commemorative events with former SS militiamen.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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