3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf

Not to be confused with SS-Totenkopfverbände, the SS organization responsible for administering the German Nazi concentration camps.
3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf

Insignia of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf
Active 1939–45
Country  Germany
Allegiance Adolf Hitler
Branch Waffen-SS
Type Panzer
Role Armoured warfare
Size Division
Motto(s) Meine Ehre heißt Treue
("My Honor Is Loyalty")
Engagements World War II
Theodor Eicke
Matthias Kleinheisterkamp
Georg Keppler
Hermann Priess
Heinz Lammerding
Max Simon
Hellmuth Becker

The 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Skull and Crossbones), also known during its existence as the 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf or the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, was one of 38 divisions of the Waffen-SS – the armed wing of the National Socialist German Workers' Party that served alongside the Wehrmacht army during World War II without being formally part of it. Prior to achieving division status, the formation was known as Kampfgruppe (battlegroup) "Eicke". Most of the division's initial enlisted men were SS-Totenkopfverbände (concentration camp guards), and others were members of German militias that had committed war crimes in Poland. Due to its insignia, it was sometimes referred to as the "Death's Head Division".


The SS Division Totenkopf was formed in October 1939.[1] The Totenkopf Division had close ties to the camp service and its members. When first formed a total of 6,500 men from the SS-TV were transferred into the Totenkopf Division.[2] The Totenkopf was initially formed from concentration camp guards of the 1st (Oberbayern), 2nd (Brandenburg) and 3rd (Thüringen) Standarten (regiments) of the SS-Totenkopfverbände, and soldiers from the SS-Heimwehr "Danzig. Members of other SS militias were also transferred into the division in early 1940; these units had been involved in multiple massacres of Polish civilians, political leaders and prisoners of war.[3] The division had officers from the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), of whom many had already seen action in Poland. The division was commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke.[4] After Eicke was reassigned to combat duty, his Chief of Staff SS-Gruppenführer Richard Glücks was appointed the new Concentration Camps Inspectorate (CCI) chief by Himmler.[5] At the time of the Battle of France, the division was generally equipped with ex-Czech weapons.[6] The Totenkopf division was one of the "Germanic" divisions of the Waffen-SS. These included 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, and 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking.

Battle of France

Totenkopf was initially held in reserve during the Battle of France and invasion of the Low Countries in May 1940.[7] The division was committed on 16 May to the front in Belgium, where it suffered heavy casualties. Later, to the northeast of Cambrai the division took 16,000 French prisoners. Whilst subsequently trying to drive through to the coast, Totenkopf was involved in the only Allied tank attack in France. [Stonne was in France as well as Montcornet. Clarification needed.] On 21 May units of the 1st Army Tank Brigade, supported by the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, took part in the Battle of Arras. The SS Totenkopf was overrun, finding their standard anti-tank gun, the 3.7 cm PaK 36, was no match for the British Matilda tank.[8]

On 27 May, the 4 Company of the Totenkopf under the command of Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, committed the Le Paradis massacre, where 97 captured men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment were machine-gunned after surrendering, with survivors killed with bayonets. Two men survived.[9][10] It took place at a time when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was attempting to retreat through the Pas-de-Calais region during the Battle of Dunkirk. The division stayed in France for refitting until April 1941. Totenkopf had suffered heavy losses during the campaign, including over 300 officers. Replacement personnel came from Waffen-SS recruits, as opposed to from the camps.

Invasion of the Soviet Union

Motorized infantry (Kradschützen) of the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf on their way to Leningrad, 1941

In April 1941, the division was ordered East to join Field Marshall Wilhelm von Leeb's Army Group North. Leeb's force was tasked with advancing on Leningrad and formed the northern wing of Operation Barbarossa. Totenkopf took part in the advance through Lithuania and Latvia, and by July had breached the Stalin Line. The division then advanced past Demyansk to Leningrad where it was involved in heavy fighting in August.

During Soviet winter counter-offensive, the division was encircled for several months near Demyansk in what would come to be known as the Demyansk Pocket. During the fighting in the pocket, it was re-designated Kampfgruppe "Eicke" due to its reduced size. In April 1942, the division broke out of the pocket to reach the German lines. At Demyansk, about 80% of its soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action. The division was pulled out of the line in late October, 1942 and sent to France to be refitted. While there, the Division took part in Case Anton, the takeover of Vichy France in November 1942. For this operation, the division was supplied with a tank battalion and redesignated 3rd SS Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf. The division remained in France until February, 1943, when its previous commander, Theodor Eicke, resumed control.

Kharkov – Kursk

In Early February 1943 Totenkopf was moved back to the Eastern Front as part of Erich von Manstein's Army Group South. The division, as a part of SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser's II SS Panzer Corps, took part in the Third Battle of Kharkov, blunting the Soviet offensive. During this campaign, Theodor Eicke was killed when his spotter aircraft was shot down. Hermann Priess succeeded Eicke as commander. The SS Panzer Corps, including the division, was then shifted north to take part in Operation Citadel, the offensive aimed at reducing the Kursk salient. It was during February 1943 that the 3rd SS Panzer Regiment received a company of Tiger I heavy tanks. This company was near full strength by the time Citadel commenced.

The attack was launched on 5 July 1943 with the II SS Panzer Corps (renamed after the formation of the I SS Panzer Corps one month earlier), attacking the southern flank of the salient as the spearhead for Generaloberst Hermann Hoth's 4th Panzer Army. The division covered the advance on the left flank of the II SS Panzer Corps, with the SS Division Leibstandarte forming the spearhead. With the advance slower than had been planned, Hausser ordered his II SS Panzer Corps to split in two, with the Totenkopf crossing the Psel River northwards and then continuing on towards the town of Prokhorovka. In the early morning of 9 July, 6th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment "Theodor Eicke" attacked northwards, crossing the Psel and attempted to seize the strategic Hill 226.6, but failed to do so until the afternoon. This meant that the northern advance slowed and the majority of the division was still south of the Psel, where elements of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 5 Thule continued to advance towards Prokhorovka and cover the flank of the Leibstandarte.

By 11 July, the 1st Company/3rd SS Panzer Regiment crossed the Psel, reinforcing the bridgehead which was then slowly expanded, securing Kliuchi. Strong Soviet opposition had slowed the division's advance along the north bank. In the afternoon of 12 July, near the village of Andre'evka on the south bank of the Psel, the Soviet forces launched a major counterattack against Regiment Thule and the division's battalion of assault guns. Elements of the division engaged lead units of the 5th Guards Tank Army, halting the Soviet advance and inflicting severe damage to the Soviet forces, but at the cost of the majority of the division's remaining operational tanks.

While the II SS Panzer Corps had halted the Soviet counteroffensive, it had exhausted itself. It eventually advanced forward to link up with III Panzerkorps. There were no further attacks of larger scale carried out because the commanders already knew that Operation Citadele had been called off and that the II SS Panzer Corps was to be pulled out of that sector. The operation was called off on 14 July.

Retreat on the Eastern Front

Men of the Totenkopf break for a meal beside the wreck of a Soviet T-34 somewhere in Romania, 1944.

Along with Das Reich, the division was reassigned to General der Infanterie Karl-Adolf Hollidt's reformed 6th Army in the Southern Ukraine. The 6th Army was tasked with eliminating the Soviet bridgehead over the Mius River.

Totenkopf was involved in heavy fighting over the next several weeks. During the July–August battles for Hill 213 and the town of Stepanovka, the division suffered heavy losses, and over the course of the campaign on the Mius-Front, it suffered more casualties than it had during Operation Citadel. By the time the Soviet bridgehead was eliminated, the division had lost 1,500 soldiers; the Panzer regiment was reduced to 20 tanks.

The Totenkopf was then moved north, back to Kharkov. Along with Das Reich, Totenkopf took part in the battles to halt Operation Rumyantsev and to prevent the Soviet capture of the city. Although the two divisions managed to halt the offensive, the Soviets outflanked the defenders, forcing them to abandon the city on 23 August.

By early September, the Totenkopf reached the Dniepr. Elements of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army had forced a crossing at Kremenchug and were soon threatening to break through the Dniepr line. Totenkopf was thrown into action against the bridgehead.

In October 1943, the division was reformed as 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf. The Panzer battalion was officially upgraded to a regiment, and the two Panzergrenadier regiments were given the honorary titles "Theodor Eicke" and "Totenkopf".

After holding the Kremenchug bridgehead for several months, the Soviets finally broke out, pushing Totenkopf and the other Axis divisions involved back towards the Romanian border. By November, Totenkopf was engaged in fighting against Red Army's attacks over the vital town of Krivoi Rog to the west of the Dniepr.


In January 1944, Totenkopf was still engaged in heavy defensive fighting east of the Dniepr near Krivoi Rog. In February 1944, Totenkopf took part in the relief attempt of German troops encircled in the Korsun Pocket. In the second week of March, after a fierce battle near Kirovograd, the Totenkopf fell back behind the Bug River. Totenkopf took up new defensive positions. After two weeks of heavy fighting, again alongside the Panzer-Grenadier-Division Grossdeutschland, the Axis forces were retreated to the Dniestr on the Romanian border near Iaşi. In the first week of April, the division received replacements and new equipment, including Panther tanks. In the second week of April, Totenkopf took part in fighting against a heavy Soviet Army attacks towards Second Battle of Târgu Frumos. By 7 May, the front had quietened and the Totenkopf resumed its reorganizing.

In the Second Battle of Târgu Frumos, elements of the division, together with elements of the Grossdeutschland, managed to halt an armoured assault by the Red Army. The assault, which in many aspects bore similarities to those of the later British Operation Goodwood, was carried out by approximately 500 tanks.[11] In early July, the division was ordered to the area near Grodno in Poland, where it formed a part of SS-Obergruppenführer Herbert Gille's IV SS Panzer Corps, covering the approaches to Warsaw near the Modlin Fortress.

After the Soviet Operation Bagration and the destruction of Army Group Centre the German lines had been pushed back over 480 kilometres, to the outskirts of the Polish capital. The division arrived at the Warsaw front in late July 1944. After the collapse of the German Army Group Centre, the IV SS Panzer Corps was one of the few functioning formations on the central-Eastern Front. On 1 August 1944, the Armia Krajowa (the Polish Home Army) launched the Warsaw Uprising. A column of Totenkopf Tiger tanks were caught up in the fighting, and several were lost. The Totenkopf itself was not involved in the suppression of the uprising, instead guarding the front lines, and fighting off several Red Army probe attacks into the city's eastern suburbs.

In several battles near the town of Modlin in mid-August, the Totenkopf, fighting alongside the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking and the Hermann Göring Panzer Division destroyed the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps. The terrain around Modlin is excellent for armour, and Totenkopf's panzers exploited this to their advantage, engaging Soviet tanks from a range where the superiority of the German optics and the 75 mm high-velocity gun gave the Panthers an edge over the T-34s.

Budapest relief attempts

The efforts of the Totenkopf, Wiking and Hermann Göring divisions allowed the Germans to hold the Vistula line and establish Army Group Vistula. In December 1944, the IX SS Mountain Corps (Alpine Corps-Croatia) was encircled in Budapest. Hitler ordered the IV SS Panzer Corps to redeploy south to relieve the 95,000 Germans and Hungarians trapped in the city. The corps arrived just before New Year's Eve, and was immediately thrown into action.

The relief attempts were to be codenamed Operation Konrad. The first attack was Konrad I. The plan was for a joint attack by the Wiking and Totenkopf from the town of Tata attacking along the Bicske-Budapest line. The attack was launched on New Year's Day, 1945.

Despite initial gains, Konrad I ran into heavy Red Army opposition near Bicske and during the battle the 1st Battalion, 3rd SS Panzer Regiment's commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Erwin Meierdress was killed. After the failure of the first operation, Totenkopf and Wiking launched an assault aimed at reaching the city centre. Named Operation Konrad II, the attack was launched on 7 January from just south of Esztergom. It reached as far as Budapest's northern suburbs, by 12 January panzergrenadiers of the Wiking division spotted the Hungarian capital's skyline. However, Gille's corps was overextended and vulnerable, so it was ordered to fall back.

Operation Konrad III got underway on 20 January 1945. Attacking from the south of Budapest, it aimed at encircling ten Red Army divisions. However, the relief forces could not achieve their goal, despite making a 24-kilometre bulge in the Soviet forces line and destroying the 135th Rifle Corps. The encircled troops capitulated in mid-February. The division was pulled back to the west, executing a fighting withdrawal from Budapest to the area near Lake Balaton, where the 6th SS Panzer Army under SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef Dietrich was massing for the upcoming Operation Spring Awakening (Operation Frühlingserwachen).

Gille's corps was too depleted to take part in the assault, instead it provided flank support to assaulting divisions during the beginning of the operation. Totenkopf, together with Wiking, performed a holding action on the left flank of the offensive, in the area between Lake Velence-Székesfehérvár. Dietrich's army made "good progress" at first, but as they drew near the Danube, the combination of the muddy terrain and strong Soviet resistance ground them to a halt.[12] As the offensive stalled, the Soviets forces counterattacked in strength on 16 March. The Germans were driven back to the positions they had held before Operation Spring Awakening began.[13] Attacking the line between the Totenkopf and the Hungarian 2nd Armoured Division, contact was lost between the two formations. The 6th Army commander, General der Panzertruppe Hermann Balck, recommended moving the I SS Panzer Corps north to plug the gap and prevent the encirclement of the IV SS Panzer Corps, however, by the time the divisions finally began moving, it was too late.

On 22 March, the Red Army encirclement of the Totenkopf and Wiking was almost complete. Desperate, Balck threw the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen, into the area to hold open a route which could be used to withdraw – the Berhida Corridor – and Gille's corps managed to escape. The Red Army then launched the Vienna Offensive which destroyed any resemblance of an organised German line of defence. The remnants of the Totenkopf retreated into Czechoslovakia. The division surrendered to the American forces on 9 May.

War crimes

The division was involved in several war crimes, most notably a massacre of British soldiers during the Battle of France.


1943 Picture of Jewish prisoners in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; the SS man at right has the "Totenkopf" insignia on his collar

With the invasion of Poland, Theodor Eicke – who was the commandant of the Dachau concentration camp, inspector of the camps, and murderer of Ernst Röhm – joined the fray with one cavalry and four infantry regiments. Three of his regiments, Oberbayern, Brandenburg and Thuringen, formed the basis of the first Einsatzgruppen; the Oberbayern and Thuringen (EG II and EG z. B.V) followed the Tenth Army in Upper Silesia; the Brandenburg (EG III) followed the Eight Army across Warthegau.[14] His Totenkopfverbände troops were called on to carry out "police and security measures" in the rear areas. What these measures involved is demonstrated by the record of SS Totenkopf Standarte "Brandenburg". It arrived in Włocławek on 22 September 1939 and embarked on a four-day "Jewish action" that included the burning of synagogues and the execution en-masse of the leaders of the Jewish community. On 29 September the Standarte travelled to Bydgoszcz to conduct an "intelligentsia action".[15] The German Intelligenzaktion resulting in the annihilation of approximately 100,000 Poles, was a major step in the implementation of Sonderaktion Tannenberg (Operation Tannenberg a.k.a. Unternehmen Tannenberg) of installing Nazi officials from SiPo, Kripo, Gestapo and SD to head an administrative machine in occupied Poland, leading to the Generalplan Ost colonization programme.[16] In October 1939, these Totenkopfverbände troops formed the core of the 3 Totenkopf Division, of which Eicke became the commander.[1] During the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising the training Battalion of the 3rd Panzer Division Totenkopf took part in the suppression of the uprising.

Le Paradis Massacre

Black and white photo of soldiers with a small tank
British prisoners of war with a Pz.Kpfw Ib German tank in Calais in May, 1940

The Le Paradis massacre was a war crime committed by members of the 14th Company, SS Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein. It took place on 27 May 1940, during the Battle of France, at a time when the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was attempting to retreat through the Pas-de-Calais region during the Battle of Dunkirk.

Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, had become isolated from their regiment. They occupied and defended a farmhouse against an attack by Waffen-SS forces in the village of Le Paradis. After running out of ammunition, the defenders surrendered to the German troops. The Germans machine-gunned the men after surrendering, with survivors killed with bayonets. Two men survived with injuries, and were hidden by locals until they were captured by German forces several days later. After the war, Knöchlein was tried his part in the massacre and convicted by a war crimes court. He was executed in 1949.[9]


SS-Oberführer Max Simon was the "official" commander (on paper) of the 3. SS-Panzer Division from 26 February 1943 - 22 October 1943, but in reality it was SS-Oberführer Hermann Priess who commanded the division in the field during those dates.

See also


  1. 1 2 Stein 1984, pp. 32-35.
  2. Stein 1984, p. 259.
  3. Sydnor 1990, pp. 37, 44.
  4. Stein 1984, p. 34.
  5. McNab 2009, p. 137.
  6. Niehorster, Leo W. G. German World War II Organizational Series, Vol. 2/II: Mechanized GHQ units and Waffen-SS Formations (10 May 1940), 1990
  7. Flaherty 2004, p. 152.
  8. Harman 1980, p. 100.
  9. 1 2 Cooper 2004.
  10. Jackson 2001, pp. 285–288.
  11. Tamelander M, Zetterling, N, Avgörandets Ögonblick, p. 279.
  12. Stein 1984, p. 238.
  13. Dollinger 1967, p. 182.
  14. Sydnor, Charles (1990) [1977]. Soldiers of Destruction: The SS Death's Head Division, 1933–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 37–38. ASIN B001Y18PZ6.
  15. Maria Wardzyńska (2009). Był rok 1939. Operacja niemieckiej policji bezpieczeństwa w Polsce. Intelligenzaktion [The year was 1939. Operation of German security police in Poland. Intelligenzaktion] (PDF file, direct download 2.56 MB) (in Polish). Institute of National Remembrance, IPN (Portal edukacyjny Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej). 8-10/356. ISBN 978-83-7629-063-8. Oblicza się, że akcja „Inteligencja” pochłonęła ponad 100 tys. ofiar. Translation: It is estimated that Intelligenzaktion took the lives of 100,000 Poles.[p. 8, or 10 in PDF]
  16. Prof. Dietrich Eichholtz (2004), »Generalplan Ost« zur Versklavung osteuropäischer Völker. PDF file, direct download 74.5 KB.
  17. Ullrich, Karl "Wie Ein Fels Im Meer" pg. 13


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