3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf
SS-Division Totenkopf ("Death's Head" or "Skull") was one of the 38 divisions fielded by the Waffen-SS during World War II. Prior to achieving division status, the formation was known as Kampfgruppe Eicke. The division is infamous due to its insignia, the "Totenkopf", and the fact that most of the initial enlisted men were from the SS-Totenkopfverbände.
- SS-Division „Totenkopf“ (16 October 1939)
- SS-Panzergrenadier-Division „Totenkopf“
- 3. SS-Panzer-Division „Totenkopf“
The Totenkopf division was numbered with the "Germanic" divisions of the Waffen-SS. These included also the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Das Reich, and SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Wiking.
The SS Division Totenkopf was formed in October 1939. The Totenkopf was initially formed from concentration camp guards and men from the SS-Heimwehr Danzig. The division was officered by men from the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT), of whom many had seen action in Poland. The division was commanded by SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke.
Having missed the Polish campaign, Totenkopf was initially held in reserve during the assault into France and the Low Countries in May 1940. They were committed on 16 May to the Front in Belgium. The Totenkopf men fought fanatically, suffering heavy losses.
Within a week of this initial commitment the division's first war crime had already been committed. At Le Paradis 4th Kompanie, I Abteilung, commanded by SS-Obersturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, machine-gunned 97 out of 99 British officers and men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment after they had surrendered to them; two survived. After the war, Knöchlein was tried by a British Court and convicted for war crimes in 1948. He was sentenced to death and hanged.
Totenkopf saw action a number of times during the French campaign. To the north-east of Cambrai the division took 16,000 French prisoners. Whilst subsequently trying to drive through to the coast they encountered a major Anglo-French force which they had a great deal of difficulty stopping and came perilously close to panic. Totenkopf had to resort to firing artillery pieces in an anti-tank role, and were saved only by the intervention of Luftwaffe dive-bombers. It then suffered heavy losses during the taking of the La Bassée Canal. Further stiff resistance was then encountered at both Béthune and Le Paradis. The French surrender found the division located near the Spanish border, where it was to stay, resting and refitting, until April 1941. Totenkopf had suffered heavy losses during the campaign, including over 300 officers. Replacement personnel were supplied, this time via regular Waffen-SS recruitment as opposed to coming from the camps. Flak and artillery battalions were added to its strength.
Allegiated totenkopf "War Crimes"
The division's original cadre was drawn from the SS-Totenkopfverbände, as opposed to the other Germanic SS Divisions which were formed from the SS-Verfügungstruppe.
The members of this unit were trained and led by commanders such as Theodor Eicke, Max Simon and Helmut Becker. Eicke instilled ruthlessness as a necessity in his men, and during the original training at Dachau, the troops commonly spent time guarding inmates at the nearby camp. The three SS-TV Standartes which were to form the Totenkopf division saw action in Poland, where some say its soldiers were involved in war crimes.
The only documented example of war crimes against the division came under Friedrich Jeckeln where, several days into the Fall Gelb campaign, Totenkopf men committed a war crime. 14./III.Bat/Totenkopf Infanterie Regiment-2 executed 97 British troops of the Norfolk Regiment at the town of Le Paradis. The commander, SS-Obersturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, had accused the Norfolk Regiment of using dum-dum ammunition and therefore being in violation of the Hague Convention of 1899. In that case, the British soldiers no longer had any rights as prisoners of war, but were illegal combatants who could be treated accordingly. After the war, Knöchlein himself was found guilty of war crimes and was hanged.