16 December 2019
Garrett E. Eriksen takes a look at the uniforms and insignia worn by the Waffen-SS during the Ardennes Offensive
By 1944 the war was all but lost for Nazi Germany and one last, big push was all Hitler could muster. Known as the Battle of the Bulge, it took place in the Ardennes region of eastern Belgium. Many units would be involved in the offensive and the Waffen-SS played a major role as Hitler’s most trusted divisions.
The SS was formed as a protection force for Adolf Hitler during his rise to power. The Schutzstaffel (Protection Squadron) was divided into two divisions: the Waffen-SS (Armed SS) and the Allgemeine-SS (General SS). The latter was responsible for enforcing and institutionalising the doctrine and policies of the Nazi Party, including those of racial discrimination. From this division of the SS came the infamous SS-Totenkopfverbände, the Death’s Head Unit, which was responsible for Hitler’s concentration camps, exterminations, assassinations and other similar duties. Further divisions of the Allgemeine-SS include the notorious Gestapo units (Secret Police) and Sicherheitsdienst (Security Services), all aimed at ensuring that Nazi Party doctrine was enforced and impressed upon the masses. The Allgemeine-SS was never involved in direct combat but rather was responsible for social administration, security, punishment, enforcement and similar home duties for those living under German rule. Heinrich Himmler is the most famous member of the SS and he was personally responsible for ensuring that the grip of the SS was widespread and absolute.
The Waffen-SS, however, was the armed wing of the SS and had many well-equipped and highly trained elite soldiers in its units. A force numbering around 900,000 men, the SS had elite units in Panzer divisions, as well as Panzergrenadier, infantry and even cavalry detachments. Despite a more army doctrine approach, the SS was still under the control of Himmler, so even here he had a division dedicated to security for newly occupied territories which reported only to him: the Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS (Command Staff Reichsführer-SS).
There were many SS divisions, but possibly the most notable at the Ardennes Offensive was the LSSAH. The 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) began as Adolf Hitler’s personal bodyguard and had some of the most trusted men in the NSDAP when it first began. Eventually, this regiment grew to the point of becoming its own Panzer division and joined in several invasions of different countries and territories during the course of the war.
The black uniform
Collectors should note that black uniform for the Allgemeine-SS was mostly worn during 1932-36 and was phased out in the following years, becoming rarer as the war progressed. These uniforms are often erroneously used in films and other sources due to their iconic nature, despite the anachronism of their presence after 1936. The Panzer division of the Waffen-SS, however, made use of a black uniform throughout the war but towards the end of the conflict would mix-and-match their uniform with other, more practical colour options. The rest of the Waffen-SS would make use of similar colour tones to other Wehrmacht divisions, notably the field grey/green and sometimes camouflage, depending on division. In terms of the Allgemeine-SS uniforms, it is worth briefly mentioning them for context but they will not form part of this uniform collectors’ article.
It is a well-known fact that the Nazi party, and Hitler especially, had crackpot mystical leanings and these influenced its development as an organisation and a military power. Their belief in the so-called Aryan race, and similar myths and legends, can be found scattered throughout their propaganda, uniforms and insignia. The swastika itself is a Tibetan symbol of good luck, amongst other things, so it is no surprise that something purported to have as much mystical power or legendary gravitas as Germanic or Norse Runes would make their way into the Nazi uniform.
The SS made use of Armanen Runes, created by Austrian mystic Guido von List, to denote the SS symbol, using the S rune in particular. Members of the SS, from any division, would wear SS collar tabs as part of their uniform and it is these tabs that were used as identifiers to Allied troops and which have become major collectors’ items. The tab design is silver SS runes on a black background. Officers’ tabs often had silver linings. On the opposite collar would often be pips and/or stripes to denote rank, although they were blank for lower ranks. Some ranks, such as those in the Panzer divisions, sometimes had Totenkopf insignia instead of SS runes or other rank insignia.
Colonel rank and above would do away with the SS runes and would instead have oak leaves, which increased in ostentation the higher the rank (though they would retain the silver on black colour motif). Collectors should note that often with age, or simply with dirt and blood that may not have been washed off, tabs may have become yellowed – in general, the more pristine they are the higher the price (although this is not always the case). Yellowed oak leaf insignia or rank pips/striped tabs can go for up to £60 ($80) whereas pristine versions can fetch up to £380 ($500) for a single tab and £1,290 ($1,700) for a pair with similar pricing for SS tabs (though even yellowed SS tabs fetch a premium price).
Next to the SS runes, the Totenkopf is easily one of the most sought-after items not only for SS collectors but WWII militaria buffs in general. Translating to Dead’s Head (or Death’s Head), it refers to the skull and crossbones design used by certain elite divisions in the SS. The skull and crossbones motif itself is not new, dating back many hundreds of years, it and has been used in many cultures to ascribe danger and death or the presence of an elite military unit; however, it is often associated with German military use in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Totenkopf can come in three primary forms: collar tabs, visor or lapel pins, and also painted on the side of some armoured cars or even fighter planes. Of course, it might be difficult for the collector to track down a Totenkopf in vehicle form, so we shall focus on the tab and pin.
The Totenkopf tabs came in two forms: with a mandible and without a mandible, and the non-mandible design was part of the uniform for some Panzer divisions but not others. The skull-with-mandible design, as a collar tab, was reserved for the 3rd SS Panzer Division of the Waffen-SS specifically, which had taken the name Totenkopf for its particular division, and thus its tabs would have the full Totenkopf design instead of the SS rune (along with the usual rank pips and stripes). Like the SS rune tabs, they too were of a silver material embroidered onto a black background with an officer’s tabs having a silver border to them. A single, pristine Totenkopf (full-mandible) can go for about £380 ($500) whereas a paired set (with rank insignia) can go for up to £1,520 ($2,000) or more.
Despite the relative rarity of the Totenkopf tabs, the visor pins tend to be more sought-after, possibly due to the fact that they were used in many of the more notorious SS divisions or that they have fared better over time than their material counterparts. Worn on the visor band of a given cap, the insignia were initially made of tombak (a brass alloy with high copper and zinc content) or CUPAL (an alloy of copper and aluminium). However, as materials became scarcer in the late war period, zinc then became the metal of choice. Pre-war designs for the pin were of a skull with no mandible over a pair of crossbones, resembling the Prussian Hussar Totenkopf insignia often worn on busbies. However, the second pattern, and by far the more recognisable, became the more common – with skull and mandible placed over a pair of crossed bones. In terms of the late-war period, collectors would then be advised to look for zinc SS skull visor pins and to ensure they have the mandible as part of the design. Luckily, the pins cost a bit less than the tabs and collectors can find them for between £227 and £607 ($300-$800) depending on condition and provenance.
SS Panzer uniforms at Ardennes
The SS had numerous divisions and uniforms. However, this article’s focus is the Ardennes Offensive and thus we will be concerned with the SS units deployed there and their corresponding uniforms. As this was an all-out offensive against the Allied lines, only the Waffen-SS would have been deployed. One can speculate that if the offensive had been successful then the Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS may have been deployed to maintain the spaces as the offensive pushed forward. As it stands, the offensive was a disaster and many pieces of SS paraphernalia currently in familial collections were probably looted from this very offensive by Allied troops.
Due to the import of this attack, Hitler deployed some of his most trusted SS divisions to do as much damage as possible. Waffen-SS units included the 6th Panzer Army (which included the I and II SS Panzer Corps, the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division, the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101) and the SS Panzer Brigade 150.
For the collector wanting to focus on the Waffen-SS at the Ardennes, a good starting point would be the Panzer uniform, with possible refinements for specific divisions as the collection progresses. It should be noted that at this point in the war, materials were in short supply and thus many in the Waffen-SS had to make do with uniforms taken from army stock which simply had SS insignia tacked on. Thus, it is likely that a single division would have had multiple uniform styles, which may be something of a headache for a collector wanting to ensure historical accuracy (or might be a blessing in disguise as potentially any uniform could work, as long as it had the SS insignia attached and was late-war period).
However, assuming that the Panzer division was properly outfitted, the uniform would consist of late-war SS Panzer gear. The SS Panzer uniform was mostly black in colour, though it should be noted that the kind of black material used here was mostly a very dark grey and not the solid black associated with the Allgemeine-SS. It should also be noted that Panzer troops would sometimes swap their black uniform items for camouflage, field grey/brown items, as the all-black outside of the armoured vehicles was too visible to Allied troops and made them easy targets. Eventually, the uniform manufacturers also realised this and added a camouflage overall to the Panzer uniform (though some crews still swapped uniforms, depending on their needs). In early 1944, a two-piece camouflage drill uniform was produced and many troops had a mix-and-match uniform in practice.
The uniform for the Panzer NCO consisted of a black M43 field cap, the schiffchen, which bore the national eagle/swastika design as well as the Totenkopf visor pin underneath, with a black field tunic and possibly camouflage pants. The uniform overall would have been of a grey/green colour (much like the M43 field tunic used by the Wehrmacht) with an optional black field jacket worn over and the trousers may have been of the same stock as the grey/green field tunic, but at this stage in the war it was more likely that they would be wearing the camo trousers. The camo pattern used was blurred edge, oak leaf and dot, which was by far the most common pattern. SS uniform items sell at a premium, especially those of Panzer divisions.
The field jacket worn by Waffen-SS NCO’s was black (very dark grey) and shorter than the standard M43 field tunic with a more streamlined feel to it, consisting of smaller and tighter seams, as well as smaller collars and lapels. SS insignia would be worn on the right-hand collar with rank insignia on the left. The shoulder straps would have also had rank insignia in silver embroidery on black (as was common for the SS). The field cap can easily reach £760 ($1000) in price, whereas the SS Panzer field jacket can reach far higher prices, between £2,277 and £7,592 ($3,000-$10,000) depending on condition and if the original owner is named and part of the provenance. Dot-pattern camouflage trousers are somewhat harder to find and therefore they can also easily reach £2,277 ($3,000) in price.
It should be noted that the LSSAH was known for associating their uniform design more closely with that of the Wehrmacht in order to distinguish their role as a primarily military unit and thus had elements of the standard field grey tunics and trousers in their overall uniform. It was primarily their helmet, collar and sleeve insignia and/or optional jackets or caps (for NCOs and above) that distinguished them from other Wehrmacht divisions and thus collectors should aim for these insignia to complete an LSSAH collection for the 1944 Ardennes Offensive. LSSAH cuff-titles, belts or shoulder slips can be found for between £760 and £1,520 ($1,000-$2,000).
Read the full story of the Battle of the Bulge here.
Check out the medals awarded by the American forces here.