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This divisional unit was formed on February 20th, 1945 while at the Oder
front from the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger and
from parts of a number of Heer units. It was a division in name only, and
is now considered by far the worst unit in the Waffen-SS, being known for
its brutal and savage fighting, nearly all of the soldiers of the unit being
ex-concentration camp inmates and prisoners.
The origin of this infamous unit lies originally with its namesake, Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger, born on September 26, 1895. He was a very intelligent, extremely brave man, but he had some serious flaws that made him unfit for life in normal society. Dirlewanger's early life showed promise though, as he served as an officer in the German Army in the First World War, winning both classes of the Iron Cross. Afterwards, he continued to serve as a soldier in various Freikorps groups. Once relative peace came to Europe, Dirlewanger finshed his university education, eventually obtaining a PhD in Political Science. He joined the NSDAP in 1923, but was eventually expelled. He rejoined years later, receiving Party #1,098,716. His eventual SS # was 357,267.
Dirlewanger's troubled personality first came to public attention in 1934, when he was convicted of molesting a female minor. He lost his teaching position, and could never return to it. Dirlewanger served a two year prison sentence, and then, back in society, received a second conviction for molestation. Later, from within a concentration camp, he contacted his old Freikorps friend Gottlob Berger, now working closely with Heinrich Himmler in the SS. Berger decided to do what he could for Dirlewanger, despite the latter's two convictions and growing reputation as an alcoholic. Berger secured an appointment for Dirlewanger with the Condor Legion in Spain. He received three wounds while there, returning to Germany in 1939. Berger then arranged a reserve Allgemeine-SS officer's commission for Dirlewanger. Berger realized that Dirlewanger could only keep his behavior in check while on military duty. The two sought to use military service to rehabilitate convicts, beginning with poachers. It was felt that these men could be made into good soldiers, mainly because they were experienced at riflery and wood craft. They would eventually be trained as partisan hunters.
The eventual Dirlewanger Division began its life on June 15, 1940 as Poachers Commando Oranienburg. After weeding out the less qualified, the unit strength stood at 84 men on July 1st, 1940. Non-poachers soon began volunteering for the unit, in order to escape concentration camp life, raising the strength to 300 men on September 1st, 1940. It then became known as SS-Sonder Bataillon Dirlewanger, and answered for supply and training purposes to the Totenkopfverbande. The bataillon was assigned to anti-partisan duties in the Generalgovernment (the area of Poland not incorporated into the Reich), and was operationally answerable only to Heinrich Himmler. The bataillon sometimes acted under orders from Higher-SS and Police Leader for the Generalgovernment Friedrich-Wilhelm Krueger, but Dirlewanger and Krueger clashed over questions of authority and the bataillon was no longer welcome there. In February, 1942, it was reassigned to Belorussia, where it served under the Higher-SS and Police Leader for Central Russia. It later served under Chief of Anti-Partisan Operations Erich von dem Bach.
On January 29, 1942, the bataillon received authorization to recruit foriegn volunteers to supplement its strength. On August 20, 1942, Hitler authorized the expansion of the unit to two battalions. The added strength came from additional poachers, Russians and Ukrainians recruited in the field, and military delinquents. This last source had been approved on October 15, 1942. The term "military delinquents" here referred to men from all branches of the Wehrmacht, including the Waffen-SS, who had been convicted of felony offences while in service. These men were distinct from the "SB-soldaten" who served in the SS-Fallschirmjaeger Abteilung 500 (and its successor, Abteilung 600). The "SB-soldaten" had been convicted of failure to properly carry out duties, which meant they had fallen asleep on sentry duty, improperly fufilled specific orders, or similar military acts, etc. The "military deliquents" were considered guilty of actions that would be classified as criminal in civilian life. For both classes, it was hoped that service in these special units would rehabilitate them sufficiently for a return to their previous duties.
The Dirlewanger unit had not yet received its II.Bataillon in February 1943. At that date, the main body reported a strength of 700 men, 300 of whom were Soviet citizens. About this time, the unit was allowed to display rank insignia, and to wear a collar patch displaying crossed rifles above a handgrenade. This was the first step towards the unit becoming a Waffen-SS unit.
There was never a great number of poachers available in Germany, but non-poachers had been allowed to pass themselves off as such if they volunteered for the Dirlewanger unit. In the spring of 1943, the ability to volunteer was extended to all classes of German convicts in the Generalgovernment. In May, 1943, 500 such men who had been formed into the II.Bataillon joined the unit, now retitled SS-Sonder Regiment Dirlewanger.
The unit had been involved in numerous firefights with partisan bands, and Dirlewanger had suffered several wounds. He received the clasp to his Iron Cross II on May 24, 1942, and that to his Iron Cross I on September 16, 1942. Dirlewanger often directly led his men in battle, leaving much of the planning for his regiment's operations in the hands of his Ia, SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Kurt Weisse. The regiment fought in its heaviest combat yet during the destruction of the Lake Pelik Autonomous Republic, in August of 1943. It suffered 300 casualties between February and the end of August. Dirlewanger received the German Cross in Gold on December 5, 1943 in recognition of his regiment's successes during this time.
A III.Bataillon had been approved for SS-Sonder Regiment Dirlewanger in August 1943. Before it could be organized, the regiment was forced into frontline combat on an emergency basis with Army Groups Center and North, beginning on November 14, 1943. It was not really equipped or trained for this, and the unit suffered extremely heavy casualties. On December 30, 1943, the unit reported a strength of 259 men. Hundreds of military and concentration camp convicts were forwarded to rebuild the regiment, and by February 19, 1944, its strength had reached 1200 men, and on April 15th, it established its own replacement company to facilitate replacing casualties. Soviet citizens were no longer recruited, and future men for the regiment would be exclusively military convicts and volunteers from the concentration camps. These last were now not only convicts, but also political prisoners.
Anti-partisan operations in Belorussia reduced the regiment's strenght to 971 men by June 30, 1944. At this point it became caught up in the German retreat stemming from the Soviet Bagration offensive in June of 1944 against Army Group Center. Much of Army Group Center had been destroyed, and the remnants were withdrawing towards Poland in disarray. SS-Sonder Regiment Dirlewanger distinguished itself in a series of rearguard actions, and made it to Poland in relatively good order.
The regiment was next assigned to the forces under von dem Bach who were battling the Polish Home Army that had occupied much of Warsaw. It went into action on August 5, 1944, as part of the Police Brigade directed by SS-Gruppenfuehrer Heinz Reinfarth. It completed its role in the destruction of Polish opposition in early September, and spent the next month watching the Soviets across the Vistula. The regiment left Warsaw 648 men strong.
Dirlewanger had received his final promotion, to SS-Oberfuehrer der Reserve, on August 15th. Reinfarth was so impressed with his bravery that he recommended Dirlewanger for the Knight's Cross. The award was approved on September 30, 1944. Dirlewanger had already achieved the Wound Badge in Gold, and in Warsaw he received the 11th wound of his career.
The regiment was now expanded and rebuilt, and a large number of military convicts became available as units shattered in Western Europe retreated into the Reich and turned in their reprobates. These men and the survivors of Warsaw formed the SS-Sonder Brigade Dirlewanger, which in early October, 1944, was retitled 2.SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger. The 4000 men of the brigade broke down as follows: 200 Poachers (5%), 600 Waffen-SS/Polizei convicts (15%), 2000 Heer/Luftwaffe convicts (50%), 1200 assorted convicts and political prisoners (30%). The brigade then fought against the Slovak uprising between October 16th and 30th, 1944.
From here on out, most of its replacements would be Communist and Socialist volunteers from concentration camps. Most of these men volunteered in the hope of deserting to the Soviets, who were much more well-disposed to those who actively made their way to the Red Army instead of waiting around for liberation. A newcomer to the brigade late in 1944 was SS-Brigadefuehrer and German Cross in Gold Holder Fritz Schmedes, the former commander of 4.SS-Polizei-Panzergrenadier-Division. Schmedes was a career Polizei officer who had risen through the division. Himmler removed him from command on December 12, 1944 because Schmedes had refused to carry out a senseless order. Himmler intended his treatment of Schmedes to be an example for other leaders, and to drive the lesson home, Schmedes was assigned to the Dirlewanger Brigade. Here he became the unofficial Tactical Officer, his role being to advise Dirlewanger and Weisse.
The brigade was organized into two regiments, each of two battalions (briefly three, until casualties and desertions reduced the available men), supported by two batteries of artillery. The unit now had the status of a unit administrated by the Waffen-SS, while not an actual part of it. This was similar to the treatment the Baltic Waffen-SS units received, though the Dirlewanger Brigade enjoyed none of the front-line prestige the Latvians and Estonians enjoyed. The two Dirlewanger regiments were titled Waffen-Grenadier Regiment 72 (commanded by SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Erich Buchmann) and Waffen-Grenadier Regiment 73 (commanded by SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Ewald Ehlers). The brigade fought on the frontline in Hungary between December 14th and 29th, 1944. Two battalions composed primarily of former Heer officers fought well under Hauptman Otto Hafner, but another, formed mainly from Communists, predictably fell apart, many of its men deserting. All elements suffered heavy casualties. The brigade was later withdrawn to Slovakia to reorganize. The differing quality elements of the unit were broken up and spread around to improve the overall quality of the unit. This was the first time the unit had been in a developed area away from a combat zone, and civilians were soon complaining about Dirlewanger's men committing acts of looting and rape. Some of the volunteers were kept locked in buildings while away from the front because of their unreliablity!
At the beginning of February 1945, the brigade returned to front line combat because of the emergency situation along the Oder River in Silesia. The unit had been slated for expansion to a division, but entered combat near Guben before this happened. The orders enlarging it to the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Dirlewanger arrived on February 14th. The next day, Oskar Dirlewanger was wounded for the 12th time, while personally leading a counterattack. He never returned to his new division. Schmedes assumed command, leading the division until the end of the war.
No new units were created to bring the brigade to divisional strength. Instead, several Heer detachments were assigned. These were the 1244.Grenadier-Regiment, 681.Panzerjaeger-Abteilung, Panzer Abteilung Stahnsdorf (with 28 Sturmgeschuetz), and 687.Pioneer-Brigade. Some Junkers from the former SS-Junkerschule at Braunschweig, who had been serving with 1.Fallschirm-Panzer-Division Hermann Goering on an ad-hoc basis, were assigned to the Dirlewanger Division as stiffening for the various elements. Additional volunteers from the concentration camps, including men from evacuated Auschwitz, were still being prepared for service with the Dirlewanger Division. Some of them reached it, others did not, in the chaos of the end of the war. Concentration camp inmates were accepted as volunteers as late as May of 1945.
The front in Silesia settled down in mid-March, 1945. The Soviet offensive to end the war began on April 16th, 1945, and the Dirlewanger Division began to retreat to the northwest at this time. Desertions became ever more common at this time, as the end was nearing. Schmedes and his headquarters attempted to reorganize the unit on April 25th, but found that it had almost completely disintegrated. Buchmann was the only man to turn up from 72.Regiment. Besides Ehlers, only 36 men from 73.Regiment were present. Ehlers had once commanded the concentration camp at Dachau, and this is probably why some of his men proceeded to lynch him that day!
The divisional staff made a last rallying stop on April 29th, but found the same sorry result as four days earlier. Schmedes then led what elements he could towards the Elbe River. Some men, along with other military and civilian elements, were caught and murdered by the Soviets. Schmedes and his staff entered American captivity on May 3, 1945.
Schmedes and Buchmann were never accused of any criminal activity. They lived openly after being released from post-war confinement. Weisse entered British captivity under an assumed name, posing as a Heer private. He escaped from a POW camp on March 5th, 1946, and was never heard from again. Many Communist volunteers from the concentration camps who had deserted to the Soviets, ended up in the government of East Germany. Oskar Dirlewanger was recovering from his last wound at a hospital in Althausen, Bavaria, at the end of the war. On June 1st, 1945, French occupation forces used Polish soldiers in their service to forcibly bring him to the Althausen jail. Dirlewanger was beaten and tortured over the next several days. He died under torture from the Polish guards during the night of June 4-5. This information was supressed at the time, and many bogus sightings of him were made around the world, until his remains were exhaumed and identified in 1960. Thus ended the life of a man who lived by, and excelled at, violence. He was successful at personally leading men in battle, but clearly out of place elsewhere in normal society. Some have questioned his receipt of high decorations, but these were honstly earned in the field. In the end, that is the best that can be said of him.
Most of the information in this piece was culled from issues #42 and 57 of Siegrunen magazine. The specific articles used were written by Richard Landwehr, editor and publisher of Siegrunen Magazine.
Oberführer Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger, 3.05.45 - 5.??.45
Brigadeführer Fritz Schmedes, 5.??.45 - 5.??.45