The 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich was a division of the Nazi Waffen-SS during World War II. It was one of the thirty-eight divisions fielded by the Waffen-SS. Das Reich served during the invasion of France and took part in several major battles on the Eastern Front, including in the Battle of Prokhorovka against the 5th Guards Tank Army at the Battle of Kursk. It was then transferred to the West and took part in the fighting in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, ending the war in Hungary and Austria. Das Reich committed the Oradour-sur-Glane and Tulle massacres.
In August 1939 Adolf Hitler placed the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) and the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) under the operational command of the OKH, (Supreme High Command of the German Army). Events during the Invasion of Poland raised doubts over the combat effectiveness of the SS-VT. Himmler insisted that the SS-VT should be allowed to fight in its own formations under its own commanders, while the OKW tried to have the SS-VT disbanded altogether. Hitler was unwilling to upset either the army or Himmler, and chose a third path. He ordered that the SS-VT form its own divisions but that the divisions would be under army command.
In October 1939 the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT) regiments, Deutschland, Germania and Der Führer, were organized into the SS-Verfügungs-Division with Paul Hausser as commander. Thereafter, the SS-VT and the LSSAH took part in combat training while under army commands in preparation for Operation Fall Gelb against the Low Countries and France in 1940.
In May 1940, the Der Führer Regiment was detached from the SS-VT Division and relocated near the Dutch border, with the remainder of the division behind the line in Münster, awaiting the order to invade the Netherlands. Der Führer Regiment and LSSAH participated in the ground invasion of the Netherlands which began on 10 May. On the following day the rest of the SS-VT Division crossed into the Netherlands, participating in the drive for the Dutch central front and Rotterdam, which they reached on 12 May. After that city had been captured, the SS-VT Division, along with other German formations, were sent to "mop up" the remaining French-Dutch force holding out in the area of Zeeland and the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland.
After the fighting in the Netherlands ended, the SS-VT Division was ordered to make for France. On 24 May the LSSAH, along with the SS-VT Division were positioned to hold the perimeter around Dunkirk and reduce the size of the pocket containing the encircled British Expeditionary Force and French forces. A patrol from the SS-VT Division crossed the canal at Saint-Venant, but was destroyed by British armor. A larger force from the SS-VT Division then crossed the canal and formed a bridgehead at Saint-Venant; 30 miles from Dunkirk. On the following day, British forces attacked Saint-Venant, forcing the SS-VT Division to retreat and relinquish ground. On 26 May the German advance resumed. On 27 May the Deutschland regiment of the SS-VT Division reached the allied defensive line on the Leie River at Merville. They forced a bridgehead across the river and waited for the SS Division Totenkopf to arrive to cover their flank. What arrived first was a unit of British tanks, which penetrated their position. The SS-VT managed to hold on against the British tank force, which got to within 15 feet of commander Felix Steiner's position. Only the arrival of the Totenkopf Panzerjäger platoon saved the Deutschland from being destroyed and their bridgehead lost. By 30 May, most of the remaining Allied forces had been pushed back into Dunkirk where they were evacuated by sea to England. The SS-VT Division next took part in the drive towards Paris.
After the close of the Battle of France, the SS-VT was officially renamed the Waffen-SS in July 1940. In December 1940 the Germania Regiment was removed from the Verfügungs-Division and used to form the cadre of a new division, SS Division Germania. It was made up of mostly Danes, Norwegians, Dutch and Flemish volunteers from the occupied territories. By the start of 1941 the division was renamed "Reich" (in 1942 "Das Reich"), and "Germania" was renamed "Wiking".
In April 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. The LSSAH and Das Reich were attached to separate army Panzer Corps. Fritz Klingenberg, a company commander in the Das Reich, led his men across Yugoslavia to the capital, Belgrade, where a small group in the vanguard accepted the surrender of the city on 13 April. A few days later Yugoslavia surrendered. SS police units immediately began taking hostages and carrying out reprisals, a practice that became common. In some cases, they were joined by the Wehrmacht.
For the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), Das Reich fought with Army Group Center, taking part in the Battle of Yelnya near Smolensk; it was then in the spearhead of Operation Typhoon aimed at the capture of the Soviet capital. By the time Das Reich took part in the Battle of Moscow, it had lost 60 percent of its combat strength. It was further reduced in the Soviet Winter Counter-Offensive: for example, the Der Führer Regiment was down to 35 men out of the 2,000 that had started the campaign in June. The division was "mauled". By February 1942, it had lost 10,690 men. By mid-1942, the division now known as Das Reich was pulled out of the fighting line and sent to the west to refit as a Panzer-Grenadier Division.
In 1943, Das Reich was transferred back from France to the Eastern Front. There it participated in the fighting around Kharkov. Thereafter, it was one of three SS divisions which made up the II SS Panzer Corps, which took part in the Battle of Kursk that summer. Das Reich operated in the southern sector of the Kursk bulge. It was pulled out of the battle along with the other SS divisions when the offensive was discontinued, giving the strategic initiative to the Red Army. The Battle of Kursk was the first time that a German strategic offensive was halted before it could break through enemy defences and penetrate to its strategic depths. In October, Das Reich was redesignated, this time as SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" to reflect its complement of tanks.
Beginning on 6 June 1944, the Allied Normandy landings took place on the coast of France. At that time, SS-Das Reich was located in Southern France. The division was ordered north shortly after the Normandy landings occurred. On 4 August Hitler ordered a counter-offensive (Operation Lüttich) from Vire towards Avranches; the operation included Das Reich. However, the Allied forces were prepared for this offensive, and an air assault on the combined German units proved devastating. Paris was liberated on 25 August, and the last of the German forces withdrew over the Seine by the end of August, ending the Normandy campaign. The U.S. 2nd Armored Division had encircled Das Reich and the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen around Roncey. In the process Das Reich and 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division had lost most of their armored equipment. Das Reich had about 2,650 men along with 14 75-mm. antitank guns, about 37 artillery pieces, 1 assault gun, and 1 Panther tank with two other tanks in the repair shop by September 1944. The division surrendered to the U.S. Army in May 1945.
The division massacred 642 French civilians in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane on 10 June 1944 in the Limousin region. SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann, commander of the I Battalion, 4th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment (Der Führer) that committed the massacre, claimed that it was a just retaliation due to partisan activity in nearby Tulle and the kidnapping of Sturmbannführer Helmut Kämpfe, commander of the III Battalion, although the German authorities had already executed ninety-nine people in the Tulle massacre, following the killing of some forty German soldiers in Tulle by the Maquis resistance movement.
On 10 June, Diekmann's battalion sealed off Oradour-sur-Glane, and ordered all the townspeople to assemble in the village square, ostensibly to have their identity papers examined. All the women and children were locked in the church. One of the six survivors of the massacre, Robert Hebras, described the killings as a deliberate act of mass murder. In 2013, he told the U.K. newspaper The Mirror that the SS intentionally burned men, women, and children after locking them in the church and spraying it with machine gun fire:
It was simply an execution. There were a handful of Nazis in front of us, in their uniforms. They just raised their machine guns and started firing across us, at our legs to stop us getting out. They were strafing, not aiming. Men in front of me just started falling. I got caught by several bullets, but I survived because those in front of me got the full impact. I was so lucky. Four of us in the barn managed to get away because we remained completely still under piles of bodies. One man tried to get away before they had gone – he was shot dead. The SS were walking around and shooting anything that moved. They poured petrol on bodies and then set them alight."
Marcel Darthout's experience was similar. His testimony appears in historian Sara Farmer's 2000 book Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane:
We felt the bullets, which brought me down. I dove... everyone was on top of me. And they were still firing. And there was shouting. And crying. I had a friend who was lying on top of me and who was moaning. And then it was over. No more shots. And they came at us, stepping on us. And with a rifle they finished us off. They finished off my friend who was on top of me. I felt it when he died.
Darthout and Hebras' eyewitness testimony was corroborated by other survivors of the massacre. One other survivor, Roger Godfrin, escaped from the school for refugees despite being shot at by SS soldiers. Only one woman, Marguerite Rouffanche, survived from the church. She later testified that at about five in the afternoon, two German soldiers placed a crate of explosives on the altar and attached a fuse to it. She and another women and her baby hid behind the sacristy; after the explosion they climbed on a stool and jumped out of a window three meters from the ground. A burst of machine gun fire hit all of them, but Rouffanche was able to crawl into the presbytery garden. The woman and infant were killed.
Diekmann was later killed in the battle of Normandy in 1944. On 12 January 1953, a military tribunal in Bordeaux, heard the case against the surviving sixty-five of the approximately two hundred SS soldiers who had been involved. Only twenty-one of them were present. Seven of them were Germans, but fourteen were Alsatians, (French nationals of Germanic culture). On 11 February, twenty defendants were found guilty, but were released after only a few months for lack of evidence. In December 2011 German police raided the homes of six former members of the division, all aged 85 or 86, to determine exactly what role the men had played that day.
After the Allied second front opened on 6 June 1944, all resistance groups joined "into the uprising". Part of Das Reich was ordered to attack strongholds of the rural guerrilla bands of French Resistance fighters as it moved to Normandy. After a successful FTP offensive on 7 and 8 June 1944, Das Reich was ordered to the Tulle-Limoges area. The arrival of Das Reich troops "rescued the beleaguered" army troops and ended the fighting in the city of Tulle. In reprisal for the German losses, on the following day, the SS hanged 99 men from the town and another 149 were deported back to Germany.
Following the war, one of the regimental commander of the division, Otto Weidinger, wrote an apologia of the division under the auspices of HIAG, the revisionist organization and a lobby group of former Waffen-SS members. The unit narrative was extensive and strived for a so-called official representation of their history, backed by maps and operational orders. "No less than 5 volumes and well over 2,000 pages were devoted to the doings of the 2nd Panzer Division Das Reich", points out the military historian S.P. MacKenzie.
The Das Reich history was published by HIAG's publishing house Munin Verlag. Its express aim was to publish the "war narratives" of former Waffen-SS member, and the titles did not go through the rigorous fact-checking processes common in the traditional historical works; they were revisionist accounts unedited by professional historians and presented the former Waffen-SS members' version of events. The Das Reich divisional history, like other HIAG publications, focused on the positive, "heroic" side of National Socialism. The French author Jean-Paul Picaper, who studied the Oradour massacre, notes the tendentious nature of Weidinger's narrative: it provided a sanitized version of history without any references to war crimes.