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Waffen-SS: The Waffen-SS and the Partisan War


The Waffen-SS war against anti-Nazi partisans in Russia and Yugoslavia was a complete disaster. Faced with an enemy that was both elusive and tenacious, SS units responded with ever greater use of terror. This only served to alienate further the indigenous population, creating an ever-larger potential pool of recruits for those waging war against their German occupiers.

At the height of the Nazi Blitzkrieg campaigns in October 1941, German rule stretched from the Bay of Biscay to the outskirts of Moscow. Hitler's soldiers did not bring freedom or liberation to the peoples of Europe, but oppression. Arbitrary arrests, torture and forced labour soon became commonplace across the continent. Yet although the Germans had defeated almost every army in Europe, they could not so easily break the spirit of resistance that was growing by the day.

Resistance to the Germans

Armed resistance to German rule took on many forms, ranging from localized acts of sabotage to large-scale guerrilla warfare. German strategy for defeating partisans was fatally flawed from the beginning, because of Hitler's racial views and his open contempt for the peoples of Eastern Europe, whom he regarded as untermenschen or subhumans. Conventional strategies of counter-insurgency warfare, involving winning over rebellious populations with rewards or political concessions, were rejected by Hitler, who only wanted to subjugate and then exterminate peoples who did not belong to his Aryan master race.

As German troops rampaged through Europe, anyone who showed any sign of resisting Nazi rule, or was even judged to be capable of acting as a catalyst for resistance, was dealt with ruthlessly. Thousands were executed in random shootings and others arrested, tortured and shipped out to concentration camps. The only attempt to enlist local allies involved the setting up of pro-Nazi puppet regimes in Western Europe. In the East, such a luxury was not attempted; even anti-Soviet Slavs were still untermenschen in Hitler's view and did not warrant any political role. Police auxiliaries were recruited in Eastern Europe, but they were only used at first to help SS Einsatzgruppen to massacre Jews and other "racial inferiors". This role tapped into the latent anti-semitism in the Ukraine and the Baltic states, and indeed many of these auxiliary forces outdid their German masters in brutality. In the long term, this did nothing to win over the population to the German cause, and only served to create more discontent and further stoked the fires of resistance in the occupied territories.

The German response

Once the partisan war was under way in earnest, German forces followed a policy of showing no mercy to anyone who engaged in partisan activity or was suspected of supporting them. Captured partisans were routinely executed, and whole villages were razed to the ground for providing comfort to enemies of the Third Reich (or even for being suspected of doing so).

Occupied Russia and Yugoslavia were the main theatres of partisan conflict for most of the war, although French and Greek partisans escalated their struggle into open warfare as German forces retreated during the summer of 1944. There was some partisan action in Italy from late 1944 onwards, but this was not on the scale of the conflict in Yugoslavia or Russia. By 1943, huge areas of Russia and Yugoslavia were in the hands of partisan forces and more than a million German soldiers, along with locally recruited auxiliary forces, had been diverted to combat the partisan threat. As the problem intensified, the Waffen-SS was increasingly drawn into this brutal and seemingly endless struggle.

Russia was by far the biggest theatre of partisan warfare for the Germans, and from late 1941 the Waffen-SS was actively involved in the struggle to crush this threat to Nazi rule. German plans to rule occupied Russia called for a sector, or operations zone, 160km (100 miles) behind the frontline to be controlled by the army. Each of the three army groups - North, Centre and South - had an army rear-area commandant who was responsible for ensuring the lines of communications to the fighting troops remained open. Three divisions of security troops were assigned to each army group to allow the commandants to protect key bridges, roads, railway junctions and supply dumps. These were largely second-rate units, often made up of medically downgraded recruits who suffered from flat feet and stomach ulcers, and who lacked heavy weapons and armoured vehicles.

Reich commissariats

Behind the operational zone, the Germans divided Russia into two Reich commissariats, with one covering the Baltic states and Belorussia, known as the Ostland Commissariat, and the other responsible for running the Ukraine. These were civilian branches of the German Government, and were responsible for the economic exploitation of Eastern Europe's population and natural resources. German civilian police units and locally recruited auxiliary police units were nominally responsible for security in the two commissariats, but they were soon overwhelmed by the task as partisan bands spread throughout Russia and the Baltic states. The German system of government and exploitation in the USSR was modelled on that set up in Poland after September 1939, where the Reich General Government had been established to control the rump of the country after the occupation. In Poland, the SS had deployed 12 police regiments and 14 battalions of locally recruited police, dubbed "Schumas".

Overlaying the military and civilian administration of Eastern Europe, Reichsführer-SS Himmler had set up a system of parallel control via representatives dubbed the "Higher SS and Police Leaders". They were posted to a series of headquarters that mirrored every level of army and civilian administration in the East, so Himmler's men were able to act quickly to stamp out any sign of resistance. In theory, they had the job of coordinating the activities of the Gestapo, the SD, German civil police, army and locally recruited auxiliaries. They thus soon became a law unto themselves.

The Einsatzgruppen

In the first months after Operation Barbarossa, the Higher SS and Police Leaders and their staffs were pre-occupied with coordinating the activities of the four Einsatzgruppen that were combing occupied Russia to eliminate its Jewish population. This took a year or so, and then the SS hierarchy in the East turned its attention to setting up ghettos in several major cities and towns to accommodate Jews forcibly evicted from their homes in Western Europe, before they could be shipped to the extermination camps.

The core of the SS occupation force was provided by 14 SS police regiments in Belorussia and seven locally recruited "rifle regiments". A major effort was made to recruit Schuma battalions from the Baltic states. Some 26 Schuma battalions were eventually deployed in the Baltic states; 64 others, comprising some 26,000 men, eventually operated elsewhere in occupied Russia alongside the SS police.

Army and Waffen-SS cooperation

Waffen-SS and army units transiting through occupied Russia or garrisoned behind the front for training and recuperation were often mobilized by the local Higher SS and Police Leaders to participate in various missions. It was a brave Waffen-SS or Wehrmacht officer who refused to carry out the requests of the personal representatives of Himmler. These tasks could range from anti-partisan sweeps to the premeditated massacres of Jews.

The most infamous incident of this type occurred in Poland with the crushing of the uprising in the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in April 1943. When the surviving 60,000 Jews in the ghetto decided to fight back rather than meekly be transported to Nazi death camps, the SS leadership in Poland mobilized a task force of 800 Waffen-SS troops, 800 SS policemen, 100 Wehrmacht soldiers and 340 Ukrainian and Baltic auxiliaries to crush the rebellion. This force first surrounded the ghetto and then systematically burnt and demolished every building inside to flush out the resistance. Over a month later, the SS police general Jürgen Stroop boasted that his men had rounded up 56,000 prisoners, and killed 7000 in the course of the operation. The one-sided nature of this struggle is reflected by the fact that Stroop's men only managed to recover nine rifles and 59 pistols, along with several hundred hand grenades and improvised weapons from the ruins of the ghetto. The erasing of the Warsaw ghetto was a massacre, not a battle.

Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski

In Russia, the Higher SS and Police Leaders soon became key figures in the partisan war. As far as Himmler and the SS were concerned, the campaign to eliminate the Jews was identical to the struggle against the partisans. In July 1941 Himmler appointed a top SS officer, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, to be Higher SS and Police Leader in the Army Group Centre rear operations zone. His first job was to comb the Pripet Marshes looking for Jews. In September 1941 he declared his philosophy, stating that "where there is a Jew, there is a partisan, and wherever there is a partisan there is a Jew".

Bach-Zelewski basically took over all anti-partisan operations in central Russia during 1941 and into 1942, organizing joint sweeps of partisan-controlled territory with Waffen-SS troops and army units. He was provided with a number of Waffen-SS units, including a motorized infantry brigade and the cavalry brigade led by Hermann Fegelein. Along with assorted police units, the SS general had some 36,000 men under his direct command and could also call on several thousand army soldiers. Fegelein was particularly zealous in his work, launching a series of killing actions in the Pripet Marshes that left 1000 suspected partisans, 699 Red Army soldiers and 14,178 Jews dead.

The partisan threat grows

Bach-Zelewski's men soon found themselves caught in a maelstrom of partisan fighting during the winter of 1941, as tens of thousands of Soviet troops who had been bypassed by the panzer spearheads started to band together, along with peasants alienated by German oppression, and strike back. German garrisons were raided, railway lines blown up, truck convoys ambushed and collaborators assassinated. Belorussia was the centre of partisan activity against the Germans, and the region's huge forests offered them the perfect sanctuary. By the end of 1941, the partisan bands were receiving help from the Soviet High Command and their attacks were coordinated with Red Army offensives. These bands at first only mustered a few hundred men, but by the time German troops were driven off Russian soil in the summer of 1944 several hundred thousand partisans were in operation.

By early 1942 Bach-Zelewski's Waffen-SS men were no longer facing unarmed Jewish villagers who meekly lined up to be machine-gunned, but well-armed and motivated partisans. When the Waffen-SS men suffered casualties at the hands of the partisans it enraged Bach-Zelewski, who ordered even more barbaric reprisals. If partisans fired on German troops from villages, then the village was torched and the villagers' crops and cattle confiscated, before the population was either conscripted as forced labour or executed. Huge swathes of central Russia were laid bare and tens of thousands of people were forced to flee to towns controlled by the Germans, or to the forests to take shelter with the partisans.

In September 1942, the partisan problem was so out of control that Himmler was able to persuade Hitler that it was all the army's fault and that he should be put in charge of the partisan war. Himmler appointed Bach-Zelewski as his chief of anti-partisan units on the entire Eastern Front.

Over the next three years the Germans mounted 43 large scale anti-partisan operations in Russia, the vast majority in the Belorussia region. Bach-Zelewski was no SS bureaucrat but a man who led from the front. He was often found at the head of anti-partisan sweeps, and he particularly liked to fly over partisan-controlled territory in his Luftwaffe Fieseler Storch light aircraft looking for possible targets. One of his favourite tricks was to machine-gun villages from his aircraft in the hope of prompting any partisans taking shelter into returning fire. This would give him the justification to move in his troops to liquidate the offending village's population.

The failure of anti-partisan measures

As the partisan war escalated through the summer of 1942, it was soaking up an increasing number of German Army troops. With the Red Army resurgent, the Wehrmacht needed every man at the front, and a new source of manpower was sought to take over the burden of fighting the partisans. Himmler now turned to the auxiliary Schuma police units. Ukrainian Catholics from the Galicia region and the Baltic states were initially a fertile recruiting ground for these auxiliary units, and Himmler was soon admitting them into the ranks of his Waffen-SS.

Ultimately, the German anti-partisan effort in Russia was a major disaster. The brutal tactics of Bach-Zelewski and his Waffen-SS soldiers totally turned the population against the German cause. At the height of the decisive 1943 summer campaign season, for example, the partisans were able to disrupt German supplies in key sectors and severely hamper the ability of the Wehrmacht to resist the advance of the Red Army. Stalin, although initially suspicious of the partisans (they were behind the German lines and thus outside his area of control), was soon lavishing praise on their ability to cause the Germans trouble. The Waffen-SS was a major factor in losing Germany the partisan war in Russia.

In Yugoslavia, the partisan war again sucked in large numbers of Waffen-SS troops as the conflict escalated out of control, because of heavy handed German responses to attacks on their troops. The basic German strategy in Yugoslavia was one of "divide and rule", using locally recruited forces to avoid having to divert large numbers of Wehrmacht troops from the Eastern Front for occupation duties in what was considered a strategic backwater. Yugoslavia's complex ethnic mix played into the Germans' hands, and allowed them to break up the country. The Germans gave the Dalmatian coast, Kosovo and what is now Slovenia to the Italians. Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary were rewarded with chunks of territory along their borders. The rump of Serbia and Bosnia was placed under direct German rule. Croatia became an "independent" fascist state.

Responsibility for internal security was initially in the hands of the Wehrmacht, which was primarily interested in keeping open lines of communications to Greek ports to supply German troops fighting the British in North Africa. The SS presence was restricted at first to intelligence and secret police operatives, whose main interest was in playing one ethnic group off against the other. Higher SS and Police Leaders headquarters were set up in each of the main regions of Yugoslavia and they operated independently of the Wehrmacht High Command in the country. The SS drafted in several of its police regiments and strong contingents of Gestapo agents to give their leaders in Yugoslavia some back-up. They soon got to work arresting and executing anti-German elements throughout the country. Not surprisingly, this generated both fear and resentment among large segments of the population.

Partisans in Yugoslavia

By late 1941, the first partisan bands were attacking German and Italian troops throughout the country. The Yugoslav partisan movement was at first split between royalist groups of mainly Serbian origin and the communists led by Josip Broz, better known as Marshal Tito. Skilful manoeuvrings by the Germans brought many of the royalists, or Chetniks, over to their cause, which led Hitler to think he had little to worry about in Yugoslavia. The Croats had been pro-German since before the 1941 invasion, and they proved some of the most loyal allies during the anti-partisan campaign in Yugoslavia. Tito's communist partisans soon proved highly effective, and their nationalist ideals inspired an increasing number of Yugoslavs to resist their occupiers. His partisans became a thorn in the side of German occupation forces in the Balkans. In three years of war, Tito managed to raise a large partisan force in the mountainous interior of Yugoslavia, tying down 700,000 German and allied troops by early 1944.

The Prinz Eugen Division

In early 1942, the growing partisan threat and the apparent inability of the Wehrmacht garrison to deal with it led Himmler to take a greater interest in events in Yugoslavia. The Waffen-SS was ordered to raise a division specifically to help in the anti-partisan effort. The 7th SS Mountain Division Prinz Eugen was mobilized in Serbia in March 1942, recruited mainly from so-called ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) from Southeastern Europe, with a core of Austrians to provide the mountaineering expertise. Its first commander, Artur Phleps, would become a key figure in the German Yugoslav campaign. A few dozen captured French Renault and Soviet tanks were provided to give the division some armoured firepower. Higher SS and Police Leaders also set about recruiting Croats into the local police, including some moulded into a pseudo SS-style unit dubbed the Einsatzstaffel, and 15,000 auxiliary policemen who formed 15 Schuma-style battalions. Some 10 Serbian auxiliary battalions and 2 Albanian police regiments were created. These men formed the nucleus of future Waffen-SS divisions recruited from Yugoslavia.

The Prinz Eugen Division took part in a series of German search-and-destroy operations in the mountains along the Serbian-Montenegrin border during the autumn of 1942. These were aimed at surrounding suspected partisan bases, and then sweeping through them to capture or kill any partisans and civilians suspected of aiding them. At first the operations were small-scale affairs involving a few battalions, but as the size of the partisan bands began to expand the Germans had to resort to multi-divisional operations.

The growing partisan war

By the winter of 1942-43, the Germans were having to draw in an increasing number of Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS, Italian and locally recruited troops to generate the manpower for setting up effective cordons around partisan bases. In response, the partisans infiltrated networks of spies into the Italian and locally recruited forces to give them advance warning of German-led operations against them. German commanders then set up special forces squads to penetrate partisan-held areas, and to provide detailed intelligence of partisan deployments to allow effective offensives to be launched.

Even with these innovative tactics, as well as having command of the air and the sea, the Germans were unable to contain Tito's partisans. The nimble partisans always seemed to be able to escape from the traps set for them by the Germans. The division of authority between the SS and the Wehrmacht High Command in Yugoslavia was a major factor in the German strategic failure. The military response to Tito's partisans was bedevilled by the conflicting policies of the SS and the Wehrmacht. Both organizations pursued different agendas, with the SS policy of terror stoking the resistance to the Wehrmacht, who were trying to pacify the country. Theoretically, Waffen-SS combat units operated in Yugoslavia under tactical control of the Wehrmacht when they were participating in anti-partisan operations, but in reality they split their time between following army and SS orders.

Himmler expanded his involvement in the Yugoslav theatre during the summer of 1943, when he formed V SS Mountain Corps headquarters to take command of Waffen-SS units fighting Tito's partisans. He had also begun to form a new division of Bosnian Muslims to capitalize on their hatred of the Croats and Serbs. Titled the Handschar Division, the new unit was formed in France and had specially designed uniforms, including fez headwear. The veteran Prinz Eugen divisional commander, Phleps, was put in charge of the corps headquarters that started to move to Yugoslavia in the autumn of 1943.

Italy's surrender in September 1943 forced the Germans to expand dramatically the size of their zone of control in Yugoslavia. This resulted in V SS Corps being given responsibility for the Dalmatian Coast, with the Prinz Eugen Division as its core unit because the Handschar Division was still in France after a mutiny severely disrupted its training.

During the following winter the corps took over responsibility for all of Bosnia, and set up its headquarters in Sarajevo. Its main job was to try to keep open strategic road and rail communications through the country's mountainous interior, which proved a thankless and never-ending task.

Operation Autumn Storm

Major anti-partisan operations conducted by V SS Corps in late 1943 included Operation Autumn Storm, which was supposed to lead to the destruction of the partisan units in eastern Bosnia. The German units had to comb an enormous area, so the bulk of Tito's men slipped through their narrowing ring. The partisans suffered 9000 casualties in the course of the operation, and were immediately pursued in Operation Snowstorm: twin drives to the west and northwest. Concluded by the end of December, these operations cost the partisans an additional 2000 men. The Prinz Eugen Division was in the thick of the action, alongside Wehrmacht units fighting under SS command. Terrible winter weather conditions took a heavy toll on German and partisan forces alike. Ferocious fighting took place in remote mountain regions, where troops had to carry all their supplies and ammunition on their backs or loaded onto mules. The German command of the air gave them some advantage, although the partisans' local knowledge meant they were usually one step ahead of their pursuers. Few prisoners were taken by either side and the Germans also dealt ruthlessly with any local civilians they suspected of giving succour to the partisans. This led to strong suspicions that the enemy casualty figures claimed by the Germans for their anti-partisan forces also included thousands of innocent civilians.

Though badly battered in these operations, the major partisan units retained their cohesion and Tito's troops were still an effective fighting force. The partisans were now operating in division-sized units, with around 20,000 troops concentrated in mountain bases, and were increasingly being supplied by air by British and American aircraft flying from bases in Italy. Time was running out for the Germans in the Balkans.

Operation Maypole

In April 1944, V SS Corps organized a major sweep against partisan units in northern Bosnia, under the codename Operation Maypole, which again failed to trap its prey. German intelligence discovered the location of Tito's mountain headquarters in the town of Drvar, in what is now western Bosnia, and German Army commanders in the Balkans organized a corps-sized operation to surround and then destroy the partisan base. As the ground operation got under way, the 500th SS Parachute Battalion was to land by glider around Tito's headquarters and capture the partisan leader, as well as British, Russian and American advisors working with him.

Operation Knight's Move

Operation Knight's Move was compromised from the start by partisan agents who spotted the movement of the ground troops towards Drvar, so when the first gliders started landing on 24 May 1944 they were met by fully alert defenders. The first wave of SS men was massacred by Yugoslav fire, allowing Tito to escape down a rope ladder. He was soon on his personal train and heading for safety. More paratroopers landed and soon they were fighting hand-to-hand with the partisans. By the time the ground column relieved the SS detachment, it was all but wiped out. More than 250 Germans were killed and 880 wounded in the operation.

SS atrocities

During the summer of 1944, the partisan war escalated dramatically and V SS Corps' troops were involved in almost weekly anti-partisan sweeps around Sarajevo and eastern Bosnia. It was now joined by the Handschar Division, as well as by the newly formed Albanian (Skanderbeg) and Croat (Kama) Waffen-SS divisions. The intensity of the partisan fighting in Yugoslavia and Russia was recognized in 1944 when veterans of the conflict were given their own decoration, the Anti-Partisan Badge. Within the Waffen-SS and SS police, the badge was highly prized because it acknowledged the ferocity of the fighting against the partisans. The SS, however, still showed contempt towards their partisan foes, who were dubbed "bandits" or "illegal combatants" who did not warrant any rights under the rules of war. Captured partisans were either executed on the spot or dispatched to slave-labour camps.

As in Russia, the German anti-partisan campaign in Yugoslavia was doomed to failure because no real effort was made to win the population over to Berlin's cause. The barbaric behaviour of German units, particularly SS police and Waffen-SS divisions, and their local allies, was in fact instrumental in helping the partisans portray themselves as fighting a "war of national liberation".

The last acts

V SS Corps, and in particular the Prinz Eugen Division, ultimately played an important role in allowing thousands of German troops to escape from Greece, but in the end this made little difference to the outcome to the war in the Balkans. The drive by Soviet troops into Romania and Bulgaria in the autumn of 1944 threatened to trap 350,000 German troops in Greece. This included the remnants of the Waffen-SS Polizei Division that had been part of the German garrison in Greece since late 1943. Bulgaria changed sides and its troops invaded the region, now known as Macedonia, to try to cut the escape route of the German forces that were in full retreat from Greece. The Prinz Eugen Division moved into Macedonia and set up a bridgehead in the Vardar corridor to allow the German withdrawal to proceed successfully.

Soviet tank columns were now approaching Belgrade across the Danube plain, and V SS Corps was re-deployed to try to establish a solid front south of the city in the Nis region. It spent two months fighting a determined rearguard action against pursuing Soviet, Bulgarian and Yugoslav troops as the Germans retreated into Hungary. During these battles, V SS Corps' commander, Phleps, was captured and summarily executed by Soviet troops.

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