The 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf was an elite armoured division of the Waffen-SS that fought in World War II, participating in Operation Barbarossa and the Battle of Kursk. The division was created in October 1939, with SS units that had fought in Poland, as a motorized infantry unit. It was first used in combat in the Battle of France, May-June 1940, being upgraded into a Panzergrenadier division in early 1942 as it was refitted with Panzer II, III, IV tanks during its stay in France. It was famous because of its insignia, which was the skull and cross bones (Totenkopf in German) and the fact that most of the initial enlisted men were SS concentration camp guards (SS-Totenkopfverbände). Being one of the 38 Panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS, its men fought on the Eastern Front until the end of the war.
Equipped with ex-Czech weapons, the Waffen SS Division Totenkopf had been held in reserve during the first phase of the Battle of France and the Low Countries. But on May 16, 1940, they were sent to the Front in Belgium. The Totenkopf men were audacious soldiers who fought with boldness and resolution. Totenkopf saw action several times during the French campaign. To the north-east of Cambrai the division took 16,000 French prisoners as they pushed back the Anglo-French forces who ran into panic when confronted with these fanatical and ferocious German Waffen-SS troops.
During Operation Barbarossa, which began on June 22, 1942, the Waffen SS Division Totenkopf joined Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North, which had the mission of advancing on Leningrad and forming the northern wing of the front line. The Waffen SS Totenkopf fought in Lithuania and Latvia, and, by July 1941, had punched a hole in the vaunted Stalin Line. The division then advanced by Demjansk to Leningrad where it was involved in heavy fighting from July 31 to August 25. In December 1941, the Soviets launched a counter-offensive against the German lines in the Northern sector of the Front. During one of these operations, the Waffen SS Totenkopf Division was encircled for several months near Demjansk, which came to be known as the Demjansk Pocket. The division was involved in ferocious fighting to hold the pocket. SS-Hauptsturmführer Erwin Meierdress of the Sturmgeschütze-Batterie (Assault Gun) Totenkopf formed a Kampfgruppe of about 120 men and held the strategic town of Bjakowo despite repeated determined enemy attempts to capture the town. During the fighting, Meierdress personally destroyed several enemy tanks in his armored fighting vehicle. Finally, in April 1942, the division broke out of the pocket and reached the German lines.
As the Waffen SS Totenkopf unit had suffered heavy losses at Demjansk, the Division were pulled out of action in late October, 1942 and sent to France to be refitted. In France, the SS Totenkopf Division was supplied with a Panzer regiment and redesignated 3rd SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Totenkopf. Then, the Division participated in Case Anton, which was the takeover of Vichy France in November 1942. In Early February 1943 Totenkopf was transferred 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 SS-Panzerkorps, took part in the Third Battle of Kharkov, blunting the Soviet General Konev’s offensive. During this campaign, Theodor Eicke was killed when his Fieseler Storch spotter aircraft was shot down while on final approach to a front line unit. The division mounted an assault to secure the crash site and recover their commander’s body, and thereafter Eicke’s body was buried with full military honours. Hermann Priess succeeded Eicke as commander.
SS-Panzerkorps, including Totenkopf, was then shifted north to take part in Operation Citadel, the great offensive to reduce the Kursk salient. It was during this period that The 3.SS-Panzerregiment received a company of Tiger I heavy tanks. (9./SS-Panzerregiment 3). The attack was launched on 5 July 1943, after a massive Soviet artillery barrage fell on the German assembly areas. The SS-Panzerkorps was to attack the southern flank of the salient as the spearhead for Generaloberst Hermann Hoth’s 4.Panzer-Armee. The Totenkopf covered the advance on the SS-Panzerkops left flank, with the Leibstandarte forming the spearhead. Despite encountering stiff Soviet resistance, the Totenkopf’s panzers continued the advance. Hausser ordered his SS-Panzerkorps to split in two, with the Totenkopf crossing the Psel river northwards and then continuing on towards the town of Prokhorovka. After fierce fighting, the SS-Panzerkorps had halted the Soviet counteroffensive and inflicted heavy casualties, but it had exhausted itself in the process and was no longer capable of offensive action.
From October to December 1943, 3rd SS Panzer-Division Totenkopf held the Kremenchug bridgehead for several months, but the Soviets finally broke out, suffering heavy losses. Outnumbered, the Totenkopf and the other axis divisions involved fell back towards the Romanian border. Then the Totenkopf was engaged in fierce fighting against Soviet attacks over the vital town of Krivoi Rog to the west of the Dniepr. The high casualty rates meant by late 1943 virtually none of the original cadre were left. However, while the division’s record in the brutal Eastern Front fighting to follow is quite clean, its reputation lingered. After surrendering to the US 11th Armored Division, Third Army, at Linz in May 1945, the members of the division were marched to Pregarten where they were turned over to the Soviets. The senior officers were executed by the NKVD, others were also executed as they were shipped to Siberia. Only few of them survived captivity to return to German.