36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS
This divisional unit was formed on February 20th, 1945 while at the Oderfront from the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger andfrom parts of a number of Heer units. It was a division in name only, andis now considered by far the worst unit in the Waffen-SS, being known forits brutal and savage fighting, nearly all of the soldiers of the unit beingex-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 forlife in normal society. Dirlewanger’s early life showed promise though, as heserved as an officer in the German Army in the First World War, winning bothclasses of the Iron Cross. Afterwards, he continued to serve as a soldierin various Freikorps groups. Once relative peace came to Europe,Dirlewanger finshed his university education, eventually obtaining a PhD inPolitical Science. He joined the NSDAP in 1923, but was eventually expelled.He rejoined years later, receiving Party #1,098,716. His eventual SS # was357,267.
Dirlewanger’s troubled personality first came to public attention in 1934,when he was convicted of molesting a female minor. He lost his teachingposition, and could never return to it. Dirlewanger served a two year prisonsentence, and then, back in society, received a second conviction formolestation. Later, from within a concentration camp, he contacted hisold Freikorps friend Gottlob Berger, now working closely with HeinrichHimmler in the ss. Berger decided to do what he could for Dirlewanger,despite the latter’s two convictions and growing reputation as analcoholic. Berger secured an appointment for Dirlewanger with the CondorLegion in Spain. He received three wounds while there, returning toGermany in 1939. Berger then arranged a reserve Allgemeine-SS officer’scommission for Dirlewanger. Berger realized that Dirlewanger could only keephis behavior in check while on military duty. The two sought to usemilitary service to rehabilitate convicts, beginning with poachers. Itwas felt that these men could be made into good soldiers, mainly becausethey were experienced at riflery and wood craft. They would eventually betrained as partisan hunters.
The eventual Dirlewanger Division began its life on June 15, 1940 as PoachersCommando Oranienburg. After weeding out the less qualified, the unit strengthstood at 84 men on July 1st, 1940. Non-poachers soon began volunteering forthe unit, in order to escape concentration camp life, raising the strengthto 300 men on September 1st, 1940. It then became known as SS-SonderBataillon Dirlewanger, and answered for supply and training purposes to theTotenkopfverbande. The bataillon was assigned to anti-partisanduties in the Generalgovernment (the area of Poland not incorporated into theReich), and was operationally answerable only to Heinrich Himmler.The bataillon sometimes acted under orders from Higher-SS and Police Leaderfor the Generalgovernment Friedrich-Wilhelm Krueger, but Dirlewanger andKrueger clashed over questions of authority and the bataillon was no longerwelcome there. In February, 1942, it was reassigned to Belorussia, where itserved under the Higher-SS and Police Leader for Central Russia. It laterserved under Chief of Anti-Partisan Operations Erich von dem Bach.
On January 29, 1942, the bataillon received authorization to recruit foriegnvolunteers to supplement its strength. On August 20, 1942, Hitler authorizedthe expansion of the unit to two battalions. The added strength came fromadditional poachers, Russians and Ukrainians recruited in the field, andmilitary delinquents. This last source had been approved on October 15, 1942.The term “military delinquents” here referred to men from all branches ofthe Wehrmacht, including the Waffen-SS, who had been convicted of felonyoffences 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 properlycarry 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 beclassified as criminal in civilian life. For both classes, it was hoped thatservice in these special units would rehabilitate them sufficiently for areturn 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 wereSoviet citizens. About this time, the unit was allowed to display rankinsignia, and to wear a collar patch displaying crossed rifles above ahandgrenade. This was the first step towards the unit becoming a Waffen-SSunit.
There was never a great number of poachers available in Germany, butnon-poachers had been allowed to pass themselves off as such if theyvolunteered for the Dirlewanger unit. In the spring of 1943, the ability tovolunteer was extended to all classes of German convicts in theGeneralgovernment. In May, 1943, 500 such men who had been formed into theII.Bataillon joined the unit, now retitled SS-Sonder Regiment Dirlewanger.
The unit had been involved in numerous firefights with partisan bands, andDirlewanger had suffered several wounds. He received the clasp to his IronCross 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 theplanning for his regiment’s operations in the hands of his Ia,SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Kurt Weisse. The regiment fought in its heaviestcombat yet during the destruction of the Lake Pelik Autonomous Republic, inAugust of 1943. It suffered 300 casualties between February and the end ofAugust. Dirlewanger received the German Cross in Gold on December 5, 1943in recognition of his regiment’s successes during this time.
A III.Bataillon had been approved for SS-Sonder Regiment Dirlewanger inAugust 1943. Before it could be organized, the regiment was forced intofrontline combat on an emergency basis with Army Groups Center and North,beginning on November 14, 1943. It was not really equipped or trained forthis, and the unit suffered extremely heavy casualties. On December 30,1943, the unit reported a strength of 259 men. Hundreds of military andconcentration camp convicts were forwarded to rebuild the regiment, and byFebruary 19, 1944, its strength had reached 1200 men, and on April 15th, itestablished its own replacement company to facilitate replacing casualties.Soviet citizens were no longer recruited, and future men for the regimentwould be exclusively military convicts and volunteers from the concentrationcamps. These last were now not only convicts, but also political prisoners.
Anti-partisan operations in Belorussia reduced the regiment’s strenght to971 men by June 30, 1944. At this point it became caught up in the Germanretreat stemming from the Soviet Bagration offensive in June of 1944 againstArmy Group Center. Much of Army Group Center had been destroyed, and theremnants were withdrawing towards Poland in disarray. SS-Sonder RegimentDirlewanger distinguished itself in a series of rearguard actions, and madeit to Poland in relatively good order.
The regiment was next assigned to the forces under von dem Bach who werebattling the Polish Home Army that had occupied much of Warsaw. It went intoaction on August 5, 1944, as part of the Police Brigade directed bySS-Gruppenfuehrer Heinz Reinfarth. It completed its role in the destructionof Polish opposition in early September, and spent the next month watchingthe 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 herecommended Dirlewanger for the Knight’s Cross. The award was approved onSeptember 30, 1944. Dirlewanger had already achieved the Wound Badge inGold, and in Warsaw he received the 11th wound of his career.
The regiment was now expanded and rebuilt, and a large number of militaryconvicts became available as units shattered in Western Europe retreatedinto the Reich and turned in their reprobates. These men and the survivorsof Warsaw formed the SS-Sonder Brigade Dirlewanger, which in early October,1944, was retitled 2.SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger. The 4000 men of thebrigade broke down as follows: 200 Poachers (5%), 600 Waffen-SS/Polizeiconvicts (15%), 2000 Heer/Luftwaffe convicts (50%), 1200 assorted convictsand political prisoners (30%). The brigade then fought against the Slovakuprising between October 16th and 30th, 1944.
From here on out, most of its replacements would be Communist andSocialist volunteers from concentration camps. Most of these menvolunteered in the hope of deserting to the Soviets, who were much morewell-disposed to those who actively made their way to the Red Army insteadof waiting around for liberation. A newcomer to the brigade late in 1944was SS-Brigadefuehrer and German Cross in Gold Holder Fritz Schmedes, theformer commander of 4.SS-Polizei-Panzergrenadier-Division. Schmedes was acareer Polizei officer who had risen through the division. Himmler removedhim from command on December 12, 1944 because Schmedes had refused to carryout a senseless order. Himmler intended his treatment of Schmedes to bean example for other leaders, and to drive the lesson home, Schmedes wasassigned to the Dirlewanger Brigade. Here he became the unofficial TacticalOfficer, his role being to advise Dirlewanger and Weisse.
The brigade was organized into two regiments, each of two battalions (brieflythree, until casualties and desertions reduced the available men), supportedby two batteries of artillery. The unit now had the status of a unitadministrated by the Waffen-SS, while not an actual part of it. This wassimilar to the treatment the Baltic Waffen-SS units received, though theDirlewanger Brigade enjoyed none of the front-line prestige the Latvians andEstonians enjoyed. The two Dirlewanger regiments were titledWaffen-Grenadier Regiment 72 (commanded by SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer ErichBuchmann) and Waffen-Grenadier Regiment 73 (commanded by SS-SturmbannfuehrerEwald Ehlers). The brigade fought on the frontline in Hungary betweenDecember 14th and 29th, 1944. Two battalions composed primarily of formerHeer officers fought well under Hauptman Otto Hafner, but another, formedmainly from Communists, predictably fell apart, many of its men deserting.All elements suffered heavy casualties. The brigade was later withdrawn toSlovakia to reorganize. The differing quality elements of the unit werebroken up and spread around to improve the overall quality of the unit. Thiswas the first time the unit had been in a developed area away from a combatzone, and civilians were soon complaining about Dirlewanger’s men committingacts of looting and rape. Some of the volunteers were kept locked inbuildings while away from the front because of their unreliablity!
At the beginning of February 1945, the brigade returned to front line combatbecause of the emergency situation along the Oder River in Silesia. The unithad been slated for expansion to a division, but entered combat near Gubenbefore this happened. The orders enlarging it to the36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS Dirlewanger arrived on February 14th.The next day, Oskar Dirlewanger was wounded for the 12th time, whilepersonally 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 the1244.Grenadier-Regiment, 681.Panzerjaeger-Abteilung, Panzer AbteilungStahnsdorf (with 28 Sturmgeschuetz), and 687.Pioneer-Brigade. Some Junkersfrom the former SS-Junkerschule at Braunschweig, who had been serving with1.Fallschirm-Panzer-Division Hermann Goering on an ad-hoc basis, wereassigned to the Dirlewanger Division as stiffening for the various elements.Additional volunteers from the concentration camps, including men fromevacuated Auschwitz, were still being prepared for service with theDirlewanger Division. Some of them reached it, others did not, in the chaosof the end of the war. Concentration camp inmates were accepted asvolunteers as late as May of 1945.
The front in Silesia settled down in mid-March, 1945. The Soviet offensiveto end the war began on April 16th, 1945, and the Dirlewanger Division beganto retreat to the northwest at this time. Desertions became ever morecommon at this time, as the end was nearing. Schmedes and hisheadquarters attempted to reorganize the unit on April 25th, but found thatit had almost completely disintegrated. Buchmann was the only man to turnup from 72.Regiment. Besides Ehlers, only 36 men from 73.Regiment werepresent. Ehlers had once commanded the concentration camp at Dachau, andthis 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 thesame sorry result as four days earlier. Schmedes then led what elements hecould towards the Elbe River. Some men, along with other military andcivilian elements, were caught and murdered by the Soviets. Schmedes and hisstaff entered American captivity on May 3, 1945.
Schmedes and Buchmann were never accused of any criminal activity. Theylived openly after being released from post-war confinement. Weisse enteredBritish captivity under an assumed name, posing as a Heer private. Heescaped from a POW camp on March 5th, 1946, and was never heard from again.Many Communist volunteers from the concentration camps who had deserted tothe Soviets, ended up in the government of East Germany. Oskar Dirlewangerwas recovering from his last wound at a hospital in Althausen, Bavaria, atthe end of the war. On June 1st, 1945, French occupation forces used Polishsoldiers in their service to forcibly bring him to the Althausen jail.Dirlewanger was beaten and tortured over the next several days. He diedunder torture from the Polish guards during the night of June 4-5. Thisinformation was supressed at the time, and many bogus sightings of him weremade around the world, until his remains were exhaumed and identified in1960. Thus ended the life of a man who lived by, and excelledat, violence. He was successful at personally leading men in battle, butclearly out of place elsewhere in normal society. Some have questioned hisreceipt of high decorations, but these were honstly earned in thefield. 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 ofSiegrunen magazine. The specific articles used were written by RichardLandwehr, editor and publisher of Siegrunen Magazine.
Oberführer Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger, 3.05.45 – 5.??.45