Along with the Allgemeine-SS and the SS-Totenkopfverbände, the Waffen-SS was part of the larger Schutzstaffel (protection squadron). The SS was an immense organization that originally began in 1925 as the personal bodyguard of Adolf Hitler. One of its primary duties was to handle internal German security matters.
Formed by Heinrich Himmler in December of 1940 from the Leibstandarte, SS-Verfungstruppe, and the Totenkopf Standarten, the Waffen-SS (Armed SS) was the military arm of the SS. Although the Waffen-SS was not a part of the Wehrmacht, it was under tactical control of OKW (Oberkommander der Wehrmacht) while on the field of battle.
Heinrich Himmler set a variety of goals and purposes for the Waffen-SS, although many of these would be altered or outright abandoned by the end of the war. The Waffen-SS was originally meant to be an exclusive racially pure Arayan organization, but this idea was abandoned as the need for more troops required conscripts and volunteers. Unlike the regular army, the Waffen-SS embraced the concept of integrating foreigners fairly early in the war.
While initially intended to concentrate on internal matters that threatened Germany, the Waffen-SS mainly served as front-line combat troops alongside the regular German army. The size of the Waffen-SS increased significantly, and became much larger than it was intended to be. Hitler had originally limited the Waffen-SS to four divisions.
At its height the Waffen-SS numbered 38 divisions and more than 900,000 men, of which half were non-German, and who had been recruited either voluntarily or by force. Seven of the most well-trained Waffen-SS divisions were:
- 1st SS Panzer (Leibstandarte)
- 2nd SS Panzer (Das Reich)
- 3rd SS Panzer (Totenkopf)
- 5th SS Panzer (Viking)
- 9th SS Panzer (Hohenstaufen)
- 10th SS Panzer (Frundsberg)
- 12th SS Panzer (Hitlerjugend)
These forces could be considered the elite Waffen-SS divisions, as many of its other divisions were understrength and manned by troops possessing varying levels of skill and training.
Waffen-SS troops can be seen during the Battle of Ramelle. "Steamboat Willie," the German soldier captured and then released by Captain Miller, was not a member of the Waffen-SS. He looks to have been picked up by a Waffen-SS unit and was probably fighting with them until he could be returned to his proper unit.