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The Waffen SS on the Eastern Front

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Operation Barbarossa was the German codename for the attack on Russia. The attack commenced at 3.15a.m. on 22 June 1941. Over 3 million German troops and half a million of its allies attacked across an 1,800 mile front in three massive army groups. The Wehrmacht was accompanied by six Waffen-SS Divisions.

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Army Group North advanced through the Baltic States and on to Leningrad, it contained three Waffen-SS Divisions; TotenkopfPolizei and Nord. Army Group Centre headed to Moscow with Das ReichLeibstandarte and Wiking were with Army Group South and drove towards Ukraine and Kiev.

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Motorcycles of the Wiking Division scout ahead of the Panzers. The speed and ferocity of the German attack caught the Russians completely by surprise.

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Huge demands were made on the infantry who had to march vast distances of up to 40 miles a day in order to keep up with the fast moving Panzers.

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A thorough search of every building had to be undertaken.

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The wing of a crashed Soviet aircraft makes a sign-post for the troops following in the wake of the rapidly advancing reconnaissance section.

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Russian prisoners are interrogated in order to gain valuable information on enemy dispositions.

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Russian prisoners await evacuation from the battlefield. These men faced the prospect of inhuman treatment which saw millions die from disease and maltreatment.

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The dismal sight of the displaced civilian population caught up in the fighting was an omnipresent and depressing sight for the men of the Waffen-SS.

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Totenkopf troops leave behind a burning Russian village in the opening weeks of Barbarossa. The division was notorious for its ethnic cleansing. The Death’s Head insignia reflected the fact that many early recruits were concentration camp guards.

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A close up of a Totenkopf motorcycle. Note the swastika on the side car, used for recognition by the Luftwaffe.

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A 20mm Flak 30 anti-aircraft gun is brought up to support the attack. Although designed as an anti-aircraft gun it was also extensively used as an infantry support gun. It was the most numerous German artillery gun produced during the war.

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Waffen-SS grenadiers take cover behind the shield of a 7.5cm le.IG 18 infantry support gun.

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The 6th Panzer Division Das Nord fought with Army Group North and saw action right up to the Arctic Circle. Here they have brought up a 7.5cm leichtes Infanteriegeschütz 18 or 7.5cm le.IG 18 infantry support gun to fire on partisans hiding in the woods and marshes of Karelia.

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A Waffen-SS Leinstandarte BMW R75 motorcyclist and his outrider watch as buildings burn. The German army insisted that both BMW and their rivals Zündapp use almost 70% of the same motorcycle components to simplify the supply of spares.

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Waffen-SS Funker or radio operator receives a message for his unit. The attack on Russia posed a serious challenge in terms of communication because of the speed of the advance and the great distances involved along the fronts.

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Waffen-SS troops firing an MG 42 machine gun. It was the standard machine gun from 1942 onwards replacing the MG 34, and had one of the highest rates of fire of any single barrelled gun at 1,200– 1,500 rounds per minute.

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Waffen-SS troops using an anti-tank gun against the Soviet T-34 tank. The T-34 was heavily armoured and it required a direct hit to its tracks or at very close range to disable it.

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Sepp Dietrich, commander Leibstandarte, watches over the advance of his troops. He was to end the war as one of Nazi Germany’s most decorated commanders.

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Das Reich troops in a Russian village during the opening weeks of the campaign, June 1941. They were attached to Army Group Centre whose objective was to take Moscow. Note the Wolfsangel or Wolf’s Hook insignia on the front right wheel arch, the symbol for Das Reich.

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Totenkopf troops crossing a makeshift bridge in a Horsh 108 troop carrier. Note the Death’s Head insignia on the rear.

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The reconnaissance battlion of the SS Wiking Division scout ahead of the infantry and tanks. Wiking Division was recruited from Scandinavian, Finish, Estonian, Dutch and Belgian volunteers but served under German officers. However, recruitment proved to be sluggish and the bulk of the rank and file were German citizens.

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Totenkopf troops rest in a copse during a lull in the fighting, September 1941. They were attached to Army Group North who advanced through the Baltic States and on to Leningrad.

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A Waffen-SS soldier from Leibstandarte Division watches a village burn. As the campaign progressed many Soviet fighters, rather than surrender went into hiding and formed partisan units who operated behind German lines.

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Sturmgeschutzen lead the attack against Soviet forces on the outskirts of the port of Mariupol in Ukraine. The city fell on 8 October 1941 giving the Germans access to the Sea of Azov. The attack on Russia would see German and Axis troops attacking in three huge army groups along a vast front which grew longer as they advanced.

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Soldiers from the Wiking Division use a flamethrower against Soviet troops. This Model 35 flamethrower had a capacity of 2.5 gallons and a range of 25 yards. They were operated by engineers rather than combat troops and were most effective at close range against pillboxes.

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Horses and armour both played a pivotal role in Operation Barbarossa. While the Panzer tanks were mechanically complex and prone to breakdown, many horses were simply worked until they dropped from exhaustion, hunger or disease.

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German soldiers preparing ammunition for their unit. The sheer speed of the advance during the early months of Barbarossa meant that providing enough ammunition for the troops was a constant logistical challenge.

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SS Totenkopf officers drive to the front in a Volkswagen Kubelwagen Type 82, the German equivalent of a jeep, 1941. Although more comfortable than a jeep, its low centre of gravity meant it struggled with the deep mud in Russia.

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The Russian winter took a very heavy toll on the Germans who unlike the Soviets were not equipped with winter clothing. By November 1941, the Germans had suffered 730,000 casualties.

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Waffen-SS troops put together a “Panzer cocktail”, an improvised Molotov cocktail used against the Russian T-34 tank. Due to its sloping armour the 3.7cm anti-tank gun proved ineffective against it.

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During the Russian winter of 1941, temperatures of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit were common affecting both men and animals.

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An SS Calvary Division patrol during the winter of 1941. The deep snow slowed the German advance in November and played a key role in the halting the German offensive in December.

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Das Reich, part of Army Group Centre, reached the gates of Moscow in December 1941 but the weather, massive losses and a Soviet counter-offensive forced the division back.

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During the Russian winter of 1941 German troops soon became experts at putting up makeshift shelters against the cold.

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Waffen-SS sniper on the Eastern Front. He is equipped with the standard German army rifle the Karbiner 98k Kurz with a telescopic sight. Rifles which were exceptionally accurate in factory tests were specifically allocated to snipers for this task. They had an effective range of 1,000 metres.

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A German convoy makes slow progress through a snow storm. Conditions demoralised the German troops as did their distance from home. Nearly a thousand miles separated Moscow and Berlin.

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From their positions west of Moscow soldiers in Das Reich could clearly see the Soviet capital through their binoculars. It was the closest they would ever get. The German army would never again threaten the Russian capital.

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Soldiers from Das Reich Division rest on the outskirts of Moscow, December 1941. The division was decimated by the Soviet counter-offensive and was withdrawn for rest and refitting.

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A Waffen-SS Oberscharführer or platoon leader scans the horizon for Soviet troops. The Russian winter gave the Soviets a respite from the German advance and allowed them to plan their counter-offensive.

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German troops take cover in a copse and scan the horizon. In the depths of winter woods not only provided cover from the enemy but also from the elements.

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A Waffen-SS soldier emerges from his dug out. Over 100,000 German troops suffered from frostbite, the more serious cases requiring amputation.

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Russian peasants watch as a German motorcycle and side car rushes past towards the front. As untermenschen or sub humans, the Germans treated them with contempt which simply stiffened their resolve to fight.

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The 8th SS Calvary Division was named after Florian Geyer, a sixteenth century nobleman who was famous for leading the peasants during the German Peasants War. Mounted infantry regiments were operating as autonomous units with the army during 1942 and 1943.

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Waffen-SS engineers build a bridge while others bathe naked in the river. Engineers were attached to every unit and were a vital part of the German war effort, helping to overcome whatever obstacles were placed in the way of the advancing army.

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Soviet Partisans use a horn to call for the surrender of trapped German troops. Propaganda was an important tool for both sides during the campaign and the Germans and Russians made extensive use of leaflets dropped behind enemy lines.

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Waffen-SS soldiers attached to Army Group South cross the River Pripyat in the Ukraine. They were surrounded by vast marshes which provided many hiding places for Soviet partisans who regularly attacked the German advance.

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Outclassed by the Russian T-34 and KV tanks and difficult to repair, the Panzer III was nevertheless the core of the German mechanised divisions and over 5,700 were built.

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An SS radio operator receives their next orders. Good communication between the Panzer tanks and the infantry was what made the German war machine so successful.

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A Tiger tank commander with the 3rd SS Divison Totenkopf. The division suffered heavy casualties during the Battle of the Demjansk Pocket, but went on to fight with distinction at the Battle of Kursk in 1943.

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A Waffen-SS unit on operations against Soviet partisans. They were a resistance movement modelled on the Red Army who fought a guerrilla campaign against the Germans rear lines, successfully disrupting road and rail communications. Here an 8cm Granatwerfer 34 mortar is carried through the woods. The barrel, baseplate, stand and shells all had to be carried by hand, making it a three man job to transport the mortar.

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A German motorcyclist sunbathes. Motorcyclists were crucial to the German offensive being more mobile and able to cover large distances much more quickly than other motorised vehicles.

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A Waffen-SS radio operator climbs on a roof to erect an aerial. Radio and reconnaissance units were particularly targeted by Soviet partisans to disrupt German lines of communication which were already stretched by the vast distances involved in the campaign.

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A German soldier guards Russian prisoners. After 1941 the capture of large numbers of Soviet troops became much rarer with many preferring to fight and die rather than surrender.

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The 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen was formed in March 1942 from ethnic Germans volunteers from Vojvodina, Croatia, Hungary and Romania and was engaged in anti-partisan operations in the Balkans.

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A Flak 30 or 20mm anti-aircraft gun in action. A lightweight gun, it was easy to transport but its low fire power of only 120 rounds a minute let it down.

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Waffen-SS troops cross a river on the Atlantic coast in August 1942. Waffen-SS divisions were withdrawn from the fierce fighting on the Eastern Front to recuperate and be refitted in the West.

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Max Simon, commander of the 1st Regiment of the Totenkopf Division, was awarded the Knight’s Cross for the fighting in the Battles of the Demyansk Pocket and promoted to Oberführer or Brigadier General. In December 1942 Simon was promoted again to Brigadeführer or Major General, prior to being given command of the 16th SS Panzergrenadier Division Reichsführer-SS.

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Hellmuth Becker, centre, later commander of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf, resting in a trench after fierce fighting in the Demyansk pocket. He was awarded the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross for his bravery.

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An SS officer talks with Wehrmacht commanders during Barbarossa. The Waffen-SS and the Wehrmacht had a difficult relationship and often did not agree on strategy, meaning attacks were not always well co-ordinated.

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Leibstandarte Schwerer Panzerspähwagen or heavy armoured reconnaissance vehicle patrols the streets of a Russian town. This model was easy to spot because of the heavy “bedstead” antenna over the body of the vehicle used for the short wave radio.

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Men of the Wiking division just prior to their attack on the vital city of Grozny in September 1942. During the battle the division was to lose over 1,500 men and failed to capture the city. It was to be a turning point in its campaign and the first of many setbacks.

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Waffen-SS men relax prior to battle. They wore a wide range of uniforms from the feldgrau or field grey similar to the regular army to the mottled camouflage which was their hallmark.

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Waffen-SS troops pull a motorcycle through the mud. Unlike in the West, many Russian roads were not surfaced and quickly turned to mud after the rains.

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Lorries make their way gingerly through a swollen river after the big thaw following the Soviet winter of 1941/42. The thaw could turn even a ford into a raging torrent.

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Waffen-SS troops advance cautiously in an armed vehicle. Soviet troops had learnt from the opening months of the campaign becoming experts at using the terrain to ambush German patrols.

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A German Panzer III tank crew rest and watch the units mascot, a German Alsatian dog. German officers were allowed to keep dogs which were not meant to be pets but working dogs designed to boost morale.

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The Waffen-SS were quick to utilise captured T-34 tanks (“Beutepanzer”), marking them with German insignia. However, this was never a popular assignment as anti-tank crews would often fire on sighting the familiar silhouette of the T-34 at long range.

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A curious Waffen-SS grenadier inspects the interior of a knocked out T-34. The numerous hits confirm that the T-34 menace could be defeated by a combination of steadfast gunnery and steely resolve.

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The crew of a tank bivouacking in the field. Any period of rest, however brief, provided a well earned rest from the constant advance.

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A Waffen-SS motorcyclist stops to get his bearings, June 1942. Motorcyclists were crucial to the German offensive being more mobile and able to cover large distances much more quickly than other motorised vehicles.

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The Waffen-SS made extensive use of the Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen or swimming car. From 1941 to 1944 over 15,000 were made making it the most numerous mass produced amphibious car in history. For crossing the water a screw propeller was lowered down from the rear deck engine cover and a simple coupling connected it to the engine’s crankshaft propelling the car forward. To go backwards in the water there was the choice of using a paddle or engaging reverse gear, allowing the turning wheels to slowly rotate the vehicle. The front wheels doubled up as rudders, so steering was done with the wheel on both land and water.

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Reconnaissance attached to the Waffen-SS played a vital part in the German advance and later the retreat from Russia, pinpointing enemy positions and searching for cover. Reconnaissance units were responsible for scouting ahead as SS Divisions were often in the vanguard of the fighting in Russia. The grenadier, top, is using a scissors periscope.

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Waffen-SS engineers carry out vital repairs to a Sd.Kfz251 halftrack. The fighting, weather and the large distances involved in Russia meant that vehicles were in constant need of servicing or repair.

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A Volkswagen Kubelwagen and a 10.5cm leFH 18 leichte FeldHaubitze or light field howitzer move up to the front. The 10.5cm leFH 18 had a range of over 1,000 metres and a fire rate of 4-6 rounds per minute.

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Waffen-SS troops watch the battle from their Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251 or Sd.Kfz 251 armoured fighting vehicle built by the Hanomag company. Heavily armoured it was a versatile vehicle which was well liked by the troops and known simply as a “Hanomag” by both German and Allied soldiers.

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Waffen-SS troops prepare to attack. They were better equipped than the Wehrmacht and despite accounting for only a small proportion of the total number of German troops involved in the East, often formed the spearhead of the attack.

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A grenadier from the 8th SS Calvary Panzer Division Florian Geyer holds an anti-tank “Teller” mine to use against a Russian T-34 tank. Shaped like a plate and packed with 5.5 kilograms of high explosive with a detonation pressure of about 200 pounds, the teller mine was capable of blowing the tracks off any Soviet tank.

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The 17cm K 18 in MrsLaf in action by day and night. It had a maximum range of 18 miles and was used to provide long range counter battery support.

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A parade of Das Reich troops saluting, 1942. The division was decimated following Army Group Centre’s failure to take Moscow and was sent to France to rest and regroup.

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Waffen-SS troops rescue a badly injured soldier. Waffen-SS Divisions often received a far higher proportion of casualties than other army divisions reflecting their front line role and fanatical attitude.

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A Panzer commences the German offensive to capture Stalingrad in the late summer of 1942. By the end of the year the German campaign in the East had come to a halt. The Battle of Stalingrad was the largest battle on the Eastern Front and was a crushing defeat for Germany. It was a turning point in the war and after it the German forces never again had a major strategic victory in the East.

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Panzers are massed for a concentrated attack during “Operation Citadel” or the Battle of Kursk.

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The Battle of Kursk pitched 900,000 Germans with 2,700 tanks and 2,000 aircraft against some 1.3 million Russians with 3,600 tanks and 2,400 aircraft.

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Tiger tanks advance during the Battle of Kursk. Although superior in fire power and armour to the Soviet T-34, the Germans had too few of them.

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Half tracks and Panzer III tanks assemble prior to the start of the battle. Initially, the Panzer III was the mainstay of the German forces but was completely outclassed by the Soviet T-34.

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Tiger tanks and grenadiers press forward in the River Kuban sector. Developed in 1942, the official German designation for the Tiger was Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. E.

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A captured American built tank is salvaged and re-used against the Soviets.

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Anti-tank troops in ambush position.

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The men of the Waffen-SS soon realised that they had caught a tiger by the tail however there was no option but to soldier on regardless.

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Men of the reconnaissance section had to be constantly vigilant in every direction.

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A Waffen-SS grenadier shows the fatigue of battle. They earned a fearsome reputation for fighting and consequently were often the first choice of many young recruits over the other military services.

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Members of the Waffen-SS discuss tactics with a tank commander and then move into position. Operation Citadel was the largest tank battle in history.

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Operation Citadel begins. The German plan was to cut off the Kursk salient by making two pincer attacks at its neck. Infantrymen mark the forward edge of the battle line for the Luftwaffe.

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A 7.5cm anti-tank gun lurks in an ambush position.

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Well camouflaged, the anti-tank gun was a potent weapon against the endless waves of Soviet armour.

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There was a constant battle behind the lines to keep supplies moving forward to comrades.

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In the opening days of the Battle of Kursk the Waffen-SS made rapid progress penetrating deep into Soviet territory.

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The German offensive soon ran into trouble when the Soviets retreated behind defensive lines which had been prepared weeks earlier.

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Panzer grenadiers shelter behind a destroyed T-34 tank.

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The Soviets retreated behind five defensive positions riddled with tens of thousands of mines before counterattacking.

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A command post in a Russian tank trench.

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Russian resistance stiffens. SS-units are confronted with elite Soviet troops while Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers try to open a passage through enemy lines.

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Waffen-SS Flak gunners alert the Stuka bomber pilots operating over the Kursk battle area of their position to prevent friendly fire. Kursk salient, July 1943.

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As the Germans pushed forward the Soviets waited for their chance to counterattack. The faces of these young Waffen-SS infantrymen already show the exhaustion of battle.

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As the Germans continued the advance they had no idea that the battle plans to eliminate the Kursk bulge had been leaked to Stalin. Despite mounting losses the Germans continued to push forward..

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Within a few days of the attack, the offensive ground to halt after 22 miles. The Soviets who had fallen back on vast minefields, guns and armour then counterattacked with their tanks

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Rest periods provided the opportunity to prepare for the next attack.

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Waffen-SS troops retreat across a river. The Soviets made full use of the natural features around Kursk to pursue and attack the Germans knowing they were vulnerable crossing water.

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Waffen-SS troops take cover in a ditch. Defeat is etched on their faces.

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The retreat was slowed by the poor conditions of the Russian roads which even in summer could become impassable after a flash storm.

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Waffen-SS soldiers received better rations than Wehrmacht troops reflecting their elite status in the eyes of Hitler and Himmler. It often caused resentment among regular troops.

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This even extended to real luxuries like champagne. Food was essential to maintain morale.

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After defeat at the Battle of Kursk, the Germans were effectively in retreat in the East for the rest of the war. Waffen-SS troops were used to slow the Russian advance and impose the maximum number of casualties on the advancing Soviets. In this way it was hoped that they would sue for peace.

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A Waffen-SS Grenadier with a Mauser K98 rifle contemplates the fate of his unit.

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As the Germans retreated they found themselves at the mercy of not just the Soviet army but also of the Russian landscape. Some of the most bitter fighting took place in the great swamps and forests of northern Russia and the Baltic States.

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Supplying the troops with ammunition became a major logistical challenge in these areas.

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During the long retreat Waffen-SS units would often counterattack the advancing Russians, giving the regular army time to withdraw to more strategic lines of defence. However, they only brought temporary relief due to the sheer weight of numbers the Soviets were throwing into the advance.

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Waffen-SS troops under fire in the Battle of Narva in 1944. Joined by Estonian volunteers the Waffen-SS fought a very successful rearguard action depriving Stalin of Estonia as a base for air and seaborne attacks against Finland for seven and a half months.

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The SS Division Nord was is involved in heavy defensive fighting in Finland.

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The tanks “skirts” were to protect them against anti-tank rifles and close range anti-tank weapons.

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A Waffen-SS machine gunner takes aim.

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A forward observer with a scissors periscope.

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The attack starts.

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Waffen-SS infantry await the next development on the battlefield.

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A heavy machine-gun, east of Ripac

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No bridge far and wide, so the stream has to be forded.

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SS-Oberscharführer and commander of tank IV of the 3rd SS Totenkopf Division.

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Artillery and mountian troops of the Prinz Eugen Division.

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The long march: Kupa – Slunj – Bihac – Vrtoce – Petrovac – Grahovo – Livno – Lise – Mostar – Nevesinje – Gacko – Bileca – Niksic – Gvozd – Savnik.

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A four barrelled anti-aircraft gun manned by volunteer soldiers from Boznia and Herzegovina.

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Sturmbannführer Klingenberg (killed in acton) giving the men light machine-gun training.

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General Woehler, Commander-in-Chief of the 8th Army was full of praise for the men of the Waffen-SS: “With an unflinching fighting spirit, they fulfilled all their assignments… Like a rock in the middle of the army whether in defence or in attack.”

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The battle at Byelgorod – an assault gun successfully tackles an anti-tank ditch.

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SS-Standartenführer Karl Ullrich distinguished himself in the hard battle at Kursk. He was later the last divisional commander of the 5th Panzer Division Wiking.

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Panther tanks with infantry riding on top of them, roll into battle.

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The Panther was a welcome addition to the fighting strength of the Waffen-SS divisions.

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An SS sniper and target spotting observer in a concealed position.

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A sniper awaits his target.

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Men of the Florian Geyer Cavalry Division.

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Captured Russian weapons are salvaged and re-used for fighting.

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Panzergrenadiers of the Deutschland Regiment.

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Getting ready to attack in the cover of an anti-tank ditch.

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The rifle grenade is fired from a cup attached to the barrel and has a great fragmentation effect.

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Waffen-SS grenadiers advance tentatively into combat.

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The Tiger tank was far superior to the Soviet T-34, but there simply wasn’t enough of them. By the end of the war the Germans had produced nearly 6,000 Panthers and just over 1,300 Tiger tanks. In comparison the Russians were building over 1,200 T-34 tanks a month.

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A PaK 40 75mm anti-tank gun – the backbone of German anti-tank guns in the final years of the war.

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Anti-tank guns and self-propelled field guns protect the flanks during the break-out.

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The Waffen-SS were forced to endure four merciless winters on the Eastern Front.

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Waffen-SS grenadiers watch the German retreat. Despite morale plummeting in the Heer, the Waffen-SS maintained a fanatical fighting spirit to the end.

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The third winter of fighting in Russia was particularly hard as the Germans were in full retreat. Hitler’s orders to “stand fast and fight to the death” resulted in the needless death of many Waffen-SS troops.

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Tiger tanks retreat through the Russian winter in December 1943. Its formidable 88mm gun was feared by the Soviets, but it was over engineered and consequently proved difficult to repair.

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A German soldier up to his waist in snow makes slow progress with his MG 42 machine gun. The weather compounded the misery.

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The break-outs from the Kowel and Korsun-Cherkassy or Tscherkassy pockets against overwhelming Soviet odds sealed the fanatical fighting spirit of the Waffen-SS Wiking Division.

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The photographer was attracted by the contrast between the vehicles as one overtakes the other.

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Tank men and grenadiers are dependent on each other.

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Panther tanks of the Wiking tank regiment played a decisive part in the successful break out from the Korsun-Tscherkassy Pocket. It easily outclassed any Soviet tank and was meant to replace the Panzer III and IVs which were susceptible to the Soviet T-34 but was never available in sufficient numbers.

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A break between operations. On the left: The commander of a Panther tank unit reports to Gruppenführer or Lieutenant Colonel Gille. On the right: The commander of the tank regiment: Johannes-Rudolf Mühlenkamp.

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SS-Obersturmführer or Lieutenant Colonel Erwin Meier-Dress, Knights Cross, August 1944. A Panzer Ace, he was killed a year later trying to relieve the Soviet siege of Budapest.

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The cost in lives of defending the constantly moving German line against the vast numerical superiority of the Russian forces always fell disproportionately on infantrymen.

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Panther tanks of the SS Division Wiking fighting east of Warsaw.

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Waffen-SS troops are sent in to put down the Warsaw uprising, August 1944. They did, but with characteristic ruthlessness.

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Exhausted Waffen-SS troops push supplies up to the front in an improvised cart attached to a bicycle. Controversially the Soviets stopped short of the city allowing the Germans to put down the uprising. The Poles held out for 63 days with little outside support.

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German troops rest during the uprising. 16,000 Poles died, German casualties were about 8,000. But the real victims were the civilians of Warsaw. Between 150,000 and 200,000 of them died, mostly from the fighting and mass murder.

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Initially the Poles took over the city centre but in savage house to house fighting the Germans took back control in September 1944. In all, 25% of Warsaw buildings were destroyed and together with earlier damage over 85% of the city had been razed to the ground when the Soviets finally entered in January 1945.

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Waffen-SS troops under fire. Feared and loathed by the Soviets in equal measure, if they were captured they were often executed on sight.

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The Russians enter a village in Poland as Waffen-SS troops seek to counterattack. Even this defensive action could not make up for the Soviets overwhelming superiority in men and material.

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A shell explodes just in front of a unit of Waffen-SS troops. During the long retreat in the East they were used strategically, often to relieve encircled Wehrmacht divisions.

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Officers of the 5th Company of the Wiking Panzer Regiment pictured on the engine deck of a Panther tank, Russia, Summer 1944.

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Destroyed Soviet T-34 tanks litter a battlefield as Waffen-SS troops look on. With over 20 million dead, both civilian and military, the Russians paid a huge price in liberating their homeland and fighting their way to the centre of Berlin.

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Waffen-SS troops rest in a hastily made trench. The Soviet advance was so quick that it proved difficult to prepare proper defensive lines.

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A Waffen-SS sniper in action. Snipers worked in twos, one to look for targets and the other to take the shot.

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Waffen-SS troops fire an 8cm Granatwerfer 34 mortar. It was the standard German mortar used throughout the war and had a reputation for extreme accuracy and a rapid rate of fire.

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A Waffen-SS radio station command post. Unlike the start of the war German lines of communication often broke down completely during the long retreat in the East.

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Tank men and infantrymen on the Eastern Front.

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Waffen-SS troops hitch a ride on the back of a Panzer tank. From 1944 onwards they found themselves in almost constant retreat.

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Waffen-SS troops shelter behind a knocked out T-34 tank.

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The Germans also developed new weapons. Here we see infantrymen with an assault StG 44 carabine rifle. It could fire 500-600 rounds a minute and had an effective range of 800 metres.

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An anti-tank Jadgpanzer 38t or “Hetzer” gun belonging to the Florian Geyer Division is brought up to the front. A light anti-tank gun, it was massed produced but suffered from having thin armour.

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Due to intensive Waffen-SS resistance Hungary was not to fall to the Soviets until the spring of 1945.

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Obertsturmbannführer Leon Degrelle during the retreat of his division to the border of the Reich. Commander of the 28th Waffen-SS Division Walloon from Belgium, he was severely wounded in 1944 and was one of only three foreigners to win the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross.

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In the high mountains of Yugoslavia the Waffen-SS fought an intensive battle with Josip Broz Tito’s partisans throughout 1944 and up to May 1945. They were a communist lead resistance movement that in 1944 numbered over 800,000 men in 52 divisions. Waffen-SS troops are seen here with a captured French tank.

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The Waffen-SS took heavy casualties in 1944 and 1945 along the whole of the Eastern Front. Many of the later divisions were only regimental or brigade sized units who lacked the fighting spirit of the earlier ones.

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A reconnaissance troop makes its way to the Russian line in the northern sector of the Eastern front. Unlike the Wehrmacht, morale amongst the Waffen-SS generally remained high.

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Waffen-SS troops try in vain to stem the Soviet advance. Here, infantrymen from the regiment Der Führer await the oncoming Soviet forces.

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By 1944 severe shortages of winter clothing meant that they had to rely on the generosity of civilians who were asked by the Nazi regime to donate furs and other winter coats.

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German troops rest behind “snow walls” in the winter of 1944 on the Eastern front. Given the speed of the Russian offensive they were often the only defensive positions they could construct.

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A Hummel or “bumble-bee” self propelled artillery gun arrives at the front. It had a 15cm howitzer and was first used in the Battle of Kursk. It had an operational range of over 130 miles. By the end of the war over 700 had been built.

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In the East the Waffen-SS found themselves having to defend an ever collapsing German front in which the line was regularly overrun by Soviets troops.

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Shortage of heavy armour and tanks in the last 6 months of the war saw Waffen-SS troops trying to stop Russian tanks with machine guns.

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An SS Cavalry Division officer discusses the worsening situation in the East with his troops. To the end Waffen-SS troops carried out localised counter-thrusts against the Soviet juggernaut. Meant to bring relief for a few crucial days, they often ended in the death of most of those taking part.

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In the closing year of the war ammunition was rationed as supply lines to the German front in the East collapsed.

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As the Soviets advanced through Poland in late 1944, the German administration collapsed. Over 600,000 Soviet soldiers died fighting German troops in Poland. A Communist-controlled adminstration, headed by Bolesław Bierut, was installed by the Soviets in July in Lublin, the first major Polish city to be seized by Russia from Germany.

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Waffen-SS tanks from the 3rd Division Totenkopf and snipers in Poland, July 1944. After the Soviets launched Operation Bagration, the largest and last offensive to be launched from Russian soil, the SS Panzer Corps were the only line of defence after the destruction of Army Group Centre.

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Waffen-SS troops man an 88mm anti-aircraft gun and retreat across a bridge in a halftrack while a knocked out German tank lies in the river. By February 1945 the whole of Poland was under Soviet control.

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A Waffen-SS soldier loads a 30mm Schießbecher or “shooting cup” grenade onto his K98 rifle. It was effective against infantry, fortifications and light armoured vehicles up to a range of 280 metres.

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As the Germans retreated they employed a scorched earth policy to deprive the Red Army of anything of value. However, the sheer speed of the Soviet advance often caught the Germans off guard.

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A Waffen-SS soldier uses his body as an improvised stand while another soldier fires the MG 42 machine gun. By 1945 much of the Waffen-SS armour had been destroyed.

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The Waffen-SS in Hungary fought a more successful rearguard action, holding out until 1945. By the end of the war over 300,000 Hungarian soldiers and 80,000 civilians had died.

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Waffen-SS units fought furiously in the Baltic in defence of East Prussia but the Soviets still marched into the region in January 1945, the first German state to be occupied in the East.

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A lack of heavy weapons meant infantrymen had to fight the Russians with “Haftladungen” or hand held mines.

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When the Red Army crossed the border of the Reich, panic set in. A quickly dug defensive position on the outskirts of a town in Lower-Silesia.

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As the Soviets fought their way to Berlin, German defences collapsed, although some towns continued to hold out, often at huge cost to both soldiers and civilians.

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Demoralised, defeated and exhausted, Waffen-SS troops contemplate their fate at the hands of the Soviets.

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A Waffen-SS soldier emerges from a trench. Many of the thirty-eight Waffen-SS divisions were decimated by the end of the war.

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As the Soviets advanced through Germany, Waffen-SS resistance intensified but with a huge numerical supremacy in men and material the final outcome was never in doubt.

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Units of the Waffen-SS defend the town of Küstrin. The unexpected arrival of Soviet troops at the end of January 1945 at the ancient fortress and garrison town came as a tremendous shock to the German High Command – the Soviets were now only 50 miles from Berlin itself. Two Soviet armies lay siege to the town. Despite this the Germans held out for 60 days but at an appalling human cost – about 5,000 Germans were killed, 9,000 wounded and 6,000 captured. The Russians lost 5,000 killed and 15,000 wounded.

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The Battle of Berlin was the last major offensive battle in the East. Intensive street battles left much of the city in ruins. In the defence of Berlin over 100,000 German soldiers were killed before Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. Over 125,000 civilians also died in the battle.

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After hostilities had finally ceased on 8 May 1945 nearly one in three Waffen-SS troops were dead or missing in action. To put their mortality rate in context it was the equivalent of all the casualties suffered by the United States military during the entire war.

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