3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf

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Image-File SS Division Totenkopf.png

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.

German names

--Image-File Totenkopf2.gif
SS-Hauptsturmführer Willi Hardieck with the SS-Division Totenkopf
Soviet Union 1942: The enormous hardships of the advance are written all over the faces of the grenadiers of the Totenkopf Division.
  • SS-Division „Totenkopf“ (16 October 1939)
  • SS-Panzergrenadier-Division „Totenkopf“ (9 November 1942)
  • 3. SS-Panzer-Division „Totenkopf“ (21 October 1943)


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 Battle of 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 alleged 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.

Operation Roland commenced at 0810 hours on 30 July. [...] General Hollidt’s counter-offensive might have collapsed against a wall of Soviet mines and anti-tank guns, had not Nehring’s XXIV Panzerkorps supporting attack achieved some measure of success southwest of Stepanovka. Von Vormann’s 23. Panzer-Division attacked with Kampfgruppe Schägger at 0810 hours. The composition of this Kampfgruppe demonstrates the growing poverty of German Panzer-Divisionen after Zitadelle: Major Peter Schägger’s Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 23, Hauptmann Robert Alber’s I./Pz.Rgt. 201, the II./Pz.Gren.Rgt. 126 and the Feld-Lehr-Bataillon 128 (the division’s replacement battalion). Despite lacking Tigers like Hausser’s Waffen-SS divisions, both Schägger and Alber were experienced reserve officers who knew how to handle their limited resources. Avoiding high ground, Alber manoeuvred his tanks through lightly-wooded, low-lying ground and managed to overrun the town of Saurivka (Saur-Mogilsky in 1943). Soviet mines and anti-tank guns were a problem in this sector as well, but the 315th Rifle Division’s defences were not as well-prepared. After breaking through the crust, Alber’s panzers boldly advanced cross-country and seized the village of Garany, behind the 315 RD’s main positions. At 1000 hours, the 16. Panzergrenadier-Division joined the attack and sent Kampfgruppe Sander (Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 116 and III./Grenadier-Regiment 50 from 111.Infanterie-Division) to link-up with Alber’s Panzers, which was achieved at 1145 hours. A force of just five battalions had surrounded the 315 RD and succeeded in taking over 3,000 Soviet prisoners on the first day of Roland, as well as destabilizing the left flank of the Mius bridgehead. During the night of 30–31 July, Totenkopf’s pioniers were able to remove about 2,000 mines and cleared a narrow lane through the outer minefields, but pionier casualties for this effort were excessive.
On the second day of the offensive, Hausser’s II. SS-Panzerkorps began their attack at 0915 hours with a 45-minute artillery preparation and received some Stuka close air support sorties, but their assault units were substantially weaker. Totenkopf attacked into the teeth of the Soviet defence with only 15 tanks (including two Tigers) and was again repulsed with heavy losses. [...] Hollidt assembled all available artillery and put it at Hausser’s disposal for an all-out attack on 1 August. By this time, the Germans knew where most of the Soviet artillery and anti-tank guns were located and thus the artillery preparation that started before dawn was far more effective. Prior to the ground assault, Nebelwerfer batteries created a thick smoke screen to conceal the advancing German infantry and tanks, thereby reducing the effectiveness of Soviet defensive fire. After much heavy fighting, Das Reich finally captured Stepanovka and then its panzers swept eastward, overrunning some of the anti-tank units blocking Totenkopf ’s path. By 1600 hours, the centre of the Soviet defensive line was near collapse. [...] In the south, the XXIV Panzerkorps achieved a major breakthrough and advanced toward the Mius. By evening, the Soviet defence crumbled and the remaining units began retreating across the Mius. On 2 August, Hollidt’s forces advanced to the river and crushed the last resistance in the bridgehead. Tolbukhin’s forces had suffered a major defeat, leaving behind 17,895 prisoners, but the remnants of 2 GMC and 4 GMC escaped across the river. Although a tactical success, the Mius River fighting was extremely costly for the Germans. Overall, AOK 6 suffered 21,369 casualties in the 17-day battle. Hausser’s II.SS-Panzerkorps was virtually burnt-out: Totenkopf suffered 1,458 casualties in its four-day attack and was reduced to just 23 operational tanks, while Das Reich suffered nearly 1,000 casualties and was left with 22 tanks. While many damaged tanks would be repaired in time, losses in Panzergrenadiers and pioniers were particularly crippling and not easy to replace. The 3. and 23. Panzer-Divisionen were also reduced to a very depleted condition and 16. Panzergrenadier-Division was wrecked (3,957 casualties between 17–31 July) by the Battle for the Mius Bridgehead. Tolbukhin’s short-lived Mius bridgehead succeeded in causing von Manstein to disperse his armour after Zitadelle and then crippling his strongest formation, II. SS-Panzerkorps.[1]

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.


  • SS-Gruppenführer Theodor Eicke (1892–1943) 1 November 1939 7 July 1941 1 year, 248 days
  • SS-Oberführer Matthias Kleinheisterkamp (1893–1945) 7 July 1941 18 July 1941 11 days
  • SS-Brigadeführer Georg Keppler (1894–1966) 18 July 1941 19 September 1941 63 days
  • SS-Obergruppenführer Theodor Eicke (1892–1943) 19 September 1941 26 February 1943  1 year, 160 days
  • SS-Oberführer Hermann Prieß (1901–1985) 26 February 1943 27 April 1943 60 days
    • SS-Oberführer Max Simon was the "official" commander (on paper) of the 3rd SS-Panzer Division from 26 February 1943 to 22 October 1943, but in reality it was Prieß who commanded the division in the field during those dates.
  • SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Lammerding (1905–1971) 27 April 1943 1 May 1943 4 days
  • SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Priess (1901–1985) 1 May 1943 20 June 1944 1 year, 50 days
  • SS-Standartenführer Karl Ullrich (1910–1996) Acting 20 June 1944 13 July 1944 23 days
  • SS-Brigadeführer Hellmuth Becker (1902–1953) 13 July 1944 8 May 1945 311 days

See also