The Waffen SS, Hitlers Praetorian Guard, epitomise for many the pinnacle of professional soldiering. Until 1943 they were a strictly volunteer force and, with Himmler's influence, they received the best of arms and equipment and were better paid and fed than the Wehrmacht. Their motto was, "My Honour Is Loyalty" and they were totally committed to Hitler who, in turn, had an unfailing faith in their fighting ability. There is no doubt that in purely military terms they achieved a great deal, punching far above their weight.
- Bob Carruthers
However, what is conveniently forgotten is their dire record with regard to their treatment of civilians and prisoners of war. It was the aim of the Nazis to kill,deport or enslave the peoples of Eastern Europe who they categorised as "untermenschen", and the Waffen SS were ruthless in pursuit of this policy particularly in respect of the Jews, Soviets and Poles. After the war many soldiers were deprived of their pension rights because of their wartime behaviour.
Barbarossa was launched on 22nd June, 194, and attached to the three armies committed to the operation were six Waffen SS divisions - Totenkopf, Polizei, Nord, Das Reich, Liebstandarte and Wiking, the last comprising Scandinavian, Finnish, Estonian, Dutch, and Belgian volunteers under German officers. These six divisions were at the head of the rapid advance eastwards. Then on 1st December,1941, the advance ground to a halt at the gates of Moscow with temperatures of minus 40 F and Russian resistance finally halting the Germans. Five days later a Russian counter-attack pushed the Germans back some 40 miles. The glory days were over and by the end of 1941 the Waffen SS had suffered more than 43,000 casualties on the Eastern Front; one in four of their numbers had been killed or wounded. What is generally accepted is that without these six divisions the German Army would never have reached Moscow.
From 1942 onward the overwhelming amount of manpower and materiel on the Russian side left no doubt as to who would be the final victor, it was simply a question of when. From 1943 to 1945 the Germans were fighting a bitter and bloody retreat in a desperate attempt to prevent the Russians reaching Germany. They failed.
Bob Carruthers has put together an excellent collection of archive photographs of SS Grenadiers in action on the Eastern Front. Set out in chronological order, starting with the heady days of the launch of Barbarossa and ending with a powerful, yet poignant, image of defeat. In gritty black and white they are a testament to the unbelievably harsh conditions faced on the Eastern Front. Enthusiasts of this particular period will be delighted with the arms , equipment and uniform on display. However, the real story is that told by the common soldier whose image, often captured unwittingly, reveals his innermost thoughts. Humour, fatigue, tension, determination and stoic endurance are all apparent.
What is most noticeable is the almost complete absence of the sense of defeat; in only two photographs do we see the look of a "beaten man". Maybe, I too, have fallen for the myth of the Waffen SS!