There are days when I think the Waffen-SS probably were the best soldiers of WW 2. On other days, I wonder what kind of cold-blooded killers and psychopaths were attracted to this fanatical group who were often willing to murder civilians and prisoners in the name of Adolf Hitler. Their ranks included both idealistic Nazis and concentration camp thugs and executioners. Hardly any of their units were untainted by links to brutal atrocities, whether shooting soldiers who had surrendered (Le Paradies and Wormhoudt in France, 1940; Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge), or the heartless slaughter of civilians and “undesirables,” including Jews and gypsies (Babi Yar outside Kiev in 1941; Ouradour-sur-Glane and Ascq in France, 1944; or Leskovice in the Czech Republic in 1945). The list of atrocities on the Eastern Front is so long it has its own website
And yet our fascination with such evil cannot be denied, nor that fascination justified by the knowledge that the Waffen-SS were also brave soldiers fighting for their country. Modeling their colorful, distinctive uniforms and insignia, or the vehicles and weaponry provided to them as the war dragged on for me always has an element of sadness and regret tinged with guilt.
That having been said, overall we hear the most about the SS’s mechanized divisions, especially their tanks and AFVs. That’s because the Waffen-SS usually received the latest, best equipment and were well-supplied when regular army units went begging. Relatively little is said about the Waffen-SS artillery, either the units who served in the three major theaters, or the equipment they were issued. Thomas Fischer’s The SS-Panzer-Artillery Regiment 1: Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH) 1940-1945
in the Schiffer Military History series comes as a welcome addition to our knowledge and understanding of the Waffen-SS on the field of battle. Fischer is the grandson of Wilhelm Auge, a beloved Spieß
(something like “the old Gunny”) in the artillery regiment, and has used his connection to its survivors to secure a trove of photos not previously seen in print.
This 208-page large format (8 ¾” by 11 1/4”) hardcover book is about 50-50 text and nearly 300 B&W photos. The photos are mostly soldier snapshots of life in the field.
There is a great deal of reference material and modeling options for the Waffen-SS tank units and mechanized guns like the Wespe and Hummel, and figure sets in both resin and styrene bring to life the SS soldiers and tankers. Yet relatively little is ever written about the artillery arm of any Waffen-SS units. You might be surprised— as I was— to learn that several famous unit commanders got their first experiences in war serving in the Leibstandarte’s batteries and reconnaissance units, including Kurt “Panzer” Meyer and Max Wünsche of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend division.
Waffen-SS artillery fought in all the major campaigns and theaters (except North Africa), and employed all the principal AFVs and weapons currently available to modelers in 1/35th styrene, including the already-mentioned Wespe and Hummel, as well as StuGs, 88s, sFH 15s and 18s and the s.10cm Kanone 18. In addition, the photos in the book show a whole motor pool of support trucks and half-tracks, so the modeler looking for inspiration won’t be disappointed.
The book focuses on the first artillery regiment of what was the original military arm of the Schutzstaffel
or “bodyguard” unit formed in 1923 to protect a then little-known beer hall rabble-rouser named Adolf Hitler (Leibstandarte
is an old-fashioned word for “bodyguard”). As the Nazi party rose to power, the LAH grew in size and importance. By the outbreak of WW 2, it had been re-designated LSSAH (Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler), though was no more than a large regiment. Given the notoriety of the Waffen-SS in WW 2, one of the surprising details that emerges from this book is the relatively minor role it played in the early Wehrmacht successes. At the outbreak of hostilities, the LSSAH and other Waffen-SS troops were designated as “supplemental” units to the regular army (hence the designation Verfügungstruppen
), and were not that important in the overall scheme of things.
Their small number didn’t lessen their ferocity in battle— nor their reputation for atrocity, including burning Polish villages. By the time of “Case Yellow” (the invasion of France), the LSSAH regiment had been augmented with a Sturmgeschütz battalion, and helped hold the perimeter around Dunkirk (as well as massacring some British POWs). During the Balkans campaign, the regiment was upgraded to brigade size, and helped secure the German breakthrough in Greece that ended British resistance there. Kurt “Panzermeyer” Meyer earned his reputation for skill in battle by leading the artillery’s reconnaissance unit, which secured the German spearhead to the Gulf of Corinth. The account of the battle in Greece opens up an action that's not even an after-thought to most accounts of the war.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 saw the LSSAH increased to division size, a trend that continued right through the war, first to motorized division strength, then a fully-mechanized panzergrenadier division, and finally in 1943, a panzer division. Equipped with the best of Germany’s limited arsenal of AFVs and materiél, the LSSAH and other Waffen-SS units (Wiking, Das Reich and Totenkopf) were often used as a “fire brigades” sent in to handle the many tactical crises resulting from fighting on three fronts. For example, after Italy’s surrender in July, 1943, the LSSAH was withdrawn from Russia and shipped by rail to disarm the Italian troops remaining within the German lines. The usual atrocities committed against “partisans” and civilians followed the unit like a bad odor follows a garbage truck.
The book naturally makes no mention of any of that, focusing instead on the crucial role the 1st artillery regiment played in the LSSAH’s various engagements, especially in the East, where the fighting was the most intense and challenging of any theater. It shouldn't be surprising that most of the book is focused on the unit's time in the East, where the regiment fought at all the major engagements we associate with the Russian front, including Kharkov and Kursk. There are also many lesser names where the relentless meat grinder of combat against the Soviets ate up men and machines. Tiger ace Michael Wittmann, for example, may be best-known for his exploits in France, 1944, but he earned his Oak leaves to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross for stopping an entire Soviet armored brigade in its tracks near Zhitomir, an event which gets an admiring nod from the text.
The Allied invasion of Normandy brought the LSSAH to France, and the custom of murdering civilians came along, too (the villages of Tavaux and Plomion). During the Battle of the Bulge that Winter, the LSSAH and its artillery were in the heaviest fighting around Stavelot and La Gleize, eventually retreating through the American lines without much of its equipment. By 1945, the LSSAH was back in the East, this time in Hungary around Lake Balaton as the Reich went through its death throes.
In the post-war years, some of its officers were tried for crimes against humanity, though the book follows a common German veteran habit when discussing the war: focus on the camaraderie and good times, and avoid any mention of Nazis. I once spoke for hours with a survivor of von Paulus' 6th Army at Stalingrad, and he flatly denied knowing about the extermination squads following in the wake of the Wehrmacht. Nowhere is there any acknowledgment of the Leibstandarte’s tainted story, whether the estimated 5,000 Russian POWs murdered on the Eastern Front, Kurt Meyer’s condoning the shooting of prisoners after the Normandy invasion, or Joachim Peiper’s slaughter at Boves in Italy and Malmedy. While I wouldn’t expect a book of this kind to tackle these subjects head-on, I found their total omission a serious blot on its historical value. It is said now that savage treatment of prisoners was routine on both sides of the Eastern Front hostilities, and that even Allied troops shot prisoners, but that hardly excuses the total amnesia shown here. Perhaps Grandpa was a Nazi?
The text is rather humdrum (translated from the German by Dr. Ed Force), and could have used some copy editing and spell-checking. The real treasure here for modelers is the photographs, which do show a soldier’s life in the field, including the danger and death that came with it. Snapshots of hastily-dug graves along the Rollbahn
underline the horror of war. The equipment and uniforms modelers want to see more of are both well-represented, though the captions are quite general and often don’t give more than a basic identification of vehicles shown.
According to the book, most of these photos have never been published before, and were secured through the author's personal connection to the unit, along with help from its historian, Horst Mutterlose. Since most are snapshots taken in the pre-coated lens era of photography, the details are often soft and the contrast low, resulting in murky blacks and some indistinct bright areas. Still, it’s an understandable and inevitable price to pay for images that were never meant to do more than record a moment in the field or pride in one’s comrades and weapons.
As the years have slipped away, reactionaries and political conservatives within Germany have tried to rehabilitate the image of the SS from fanatical Nazis to simple soldiers just “doing their duty.” SS veterans groups have tried to scrub the record clean, too. Things hit their nadir when President Ronald Reagan participated in a notorious wreath-laying ceremony at the military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985 meant to signal “reconciliation” and an end to holding Germans responsible for the war’s depravity. Despite all this, the bloody history surrounding the Waffen-SS is there for anyone who is curious to learn it, both in battle and against the innocent.
In spite of my own reservations, modelers interested in the era and its combatants will gain insight and valuable photographic materials about the artillery arm of the LSSAH from this book, an arm that is no more than an afterthought, if that, to most book writers or even model manufacturers. Kit makers have released a large and growing range of vehicles and guns appropriate to Waffen-SS artillery units, and the book will help modelers “get it right,” at least on the technical side.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the victims of the Waffen-SS.