Birth and Development: 1923-39
The Leibstandarte or, to give its full name, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH), was the first and is probably the most well-known of the premier Waffen-SS Panzer divisions. At the end of the Second World War in 1945 the Leibstandarte had become a fully-fledged armoured division with more than its fair share of popular personalities, Michael Wittmann among them; this was indeed a far cry from its more humbler beginnings during the dark times that was Germany in the 1920s.
Politics in Germany during both the period after the end of the First World War and the 1920s was for the most part a perilous affair, with leaders and speakers often being threatened by opposition strongarm groups; to combat any potential threat, many of the main factions both on the left and right of the complicated German political spectrum created bodyguard detachments composed of their most loyal followers to maintain order in meetings and protect speakers. The fledgling Nazi party was no different in this respect, and in March 1923 the Stabswache or Headquarters Guard was formed, led by two of Hitler's early stalwarts, Josef Berchtold and Julius Schreck. Two months later, this small group was provided with the more belligerent sounding monicker Stosstrupp Adolf Hitler, or "Adolf Hitler Shock Troops".
Left: The fledgling Stosstruppe Adolf Hitler in 1923 prior to the November Putsch. Note the Imperial flag. Right: Julius Schreck, here wearing the uniform of an SS-Standartenführer.
November 1923 was to signal the beginning of what was something of a lean time for Hitler and the Nazi Party, following the dismal failure of their attempted coup in Munich, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler was jailed, and the NSDAP - and the Stosstrupp with it - were disbanded on the orders of the government. By 1925 however Hitler had been released, and the NSDAP was quickly revived as a political force; the erstwhile Stosstrupp was also renamed, to Schutzstaffel, or "protection squad" - abbreviated to SS. As opposed to the street gangs of the Sturmabteilung or SA - the original Stormtroopers and the party's real "motivators" on the streets - the SS remained an élite group, and by 1929 it consisted of less than three hundred men. The leader of the unit by this time was the former chicken breeder Heinrich Himmler, who assumed the new rank of Reichsführer-SS.
After 1929 the SS began to expand rapidly, and standards in personnel not surprisingly began to lower. This slide was arrested early in in 1933 after Hitler had been elected Chancellor of Germany, when a review was carried out on all existing members. The political changes also led Hitler to call for the creation of a dedicated guard formation from the ranks of the SS, and instructed one of his oldest colleagues, First World War veteran Josef "Sepp" Dietrich, to set the wheels in motion. Dietrich quickly set about selecting a group of men applying rigorous standards, and by the spring of 1933 had established the SS-Stabswache Berlin, consisting of 117 men. The primary role of this new Stabswache was the guarding of the Reich Chancellery, and as a result they were quickly given the nickname "asphalt soldiers". Of course, none of the unit's detractors would have known that of these initial 117 men, over sixty were to become company commanders or above, with three becoming divisional commanders.
Two of the most influential figures in the SS organisation. Left: Reichsführer-SS and Chief of Police Heinrich Himmler, who assumed control of the unit in 1929, retaining his position until the end of the war in 1945. Right: an early photo of Josef "Sepp" Dietrich, the founder of the reformed SS Stabswache Berlin. In this image, he is wearing the "tradition" brown shirt with collar patches indicating the rank of SS-Standartenführer.
Not long after this the designation of the formation had been changed to SS-Sonderkommando Berlin, and included a motorised company. Two more SS-Sonderkommando were formed during this period, at Zossen and Jüterbog. The SS-Sonderkommnado Zossen was soon absorbed into the SS-Sonderkommando Berlin, swelling it to regimental size, and on 3 September 1933, the newly amalgamated SS-Sonderkommando was renamed the Adolf Hitler-Standarte. A month afterwards, the new formation increased in size further when it was merged with the SS-Sonderkommando Jüterbog.
The entry standards for the Leibstandarte were tightened to the point of being too draconian, arguably even ridiculous; proof of ancestry had to go back to 1800 - 1750 for officers - and men with even a single filled tooth were turned away by the recruitment offices, often being passed onto the "lesser" SS-VT (SS-Verfügungstruppe) or the notorious Totenkopfverbände, where entry standards were considerably less strict. At the same time moves were also made to turn the unit into a fully motorised regiment. By November 1933, on the tenth anniversary of the failed Putsch, the unit received its final name change, becoming the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, responsible for and to Adolf Hitler alone. It was the final chapter in the birth of what was to become one of the most respected and feared military units in Nazi Germany.
Left: A group of trainees from the SS Sonderkomando Zossen, which was later absorbed into the SS Sonderkommando Berlin. Right: Fanfare for the Führer. Note the legend on the banners signifying the Adolf Hitler Standarte, the name given the the unit in late 1933 following the amalgamation of the SS Sonderkommando units Berlin, Zossen and Jüterbog.
From its inauguration as the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler in November 1933, the unit steadily began to increase in size, and by March the following year the unit had a total strength of just under a thousand men, divided into seven companies. During this period the unit also began to take in graduates from the new training school which had been set up in the Bavarian town of Bad Tölz. One of the first recruits from Bad Tölz was one Kurt Meyer, who was later to become one of the Leibstandarte's most respected and popular commanders. In April 1934 the unit's official title was changed slightly with the inclusion of the initials "SS", making it the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, or LSSAH. During this period of organisation and reorganisation, unit commander Sepp Dietrich also succeeded, against the will of Himmler, in having the Leibstandarte recognised as a military rather than a political formation.
In spite of Dietrich's intentions, the Leibstandarte was to play a key role in what was probably the most significant political upheaval to take place within the Nazi leadership during the 1930s, the so-called "Night of the Long Knives", which saw the SS supplant the SA as the most powerful paramilitary force in Germany. Dietrich himself was involved in the arrest and murder of SA leader Ernst Röhm, an act for which he was sentenced by the German courts more than twenty years later. By the beginning of 1935 the Leibstandarte had over two and a half thousand men.
1935 was to see the Leibstandarte develop rapidly as a military unit, helped in no small part by Hitler's decree of 2 February which stipulated that Leibstandarte personnel were to be treated in the same way as members of the Army, up to including their being made combat ready. Equality with the other armed forces was formalised not long afterwards when the men of the Leibstandarte (and SS-VT) were put on the same pay scale and given the same status as far as military service obligations were concerned. In what can be seen as its first "mission", the men of the Leibstandarte marched through the town of Saarbrücken in the once occupied Saarland on 1 March 1935, the first German soldiers to do so since the end of the First World War.
By the summer of 1935 the new "military" formations of the SS were given field grey uniforms similar to those worn by the regular Heer. The men of the LSSAH were also presented with the distinctive "LAH" shoulder cypher, which was to distinguish the members of the Leibstandarte from the other units of the SS-VT and later Waffen-SS. The unit was also awarded its special cuffband, which simply contained the name "Adolf Hitler" in traditional Sütterlin script. Meanwhile, the unit continued to serve in its initial role of guarding the Chancellery and providing an honour guard for the Führer, and also played a role during both the Winter and Summer Olympic games the following year. During these events, the traditional black uniform was worn, complete with distinctive white leather parade equipment.
The Leibstandarte in its ceremonial role. Left: The honour guard of the Leibstandarte stand to attention outside the Führerhaus. Note the white belt and gloves, which were unique to the unit. Right: Two men of the Leibstandarte stand guard outside the entrance to the Reich Chancellery.
By 1937 the Leibstandarte was recognised by many as an élite formation, and large numbers were clamouring to join its ranks. Among these was the twenty-two year old Michael Wittmann, who was accepted into the Leibstandarte training school at Berlin-Lichterfelde in April of that year. Military exercises and outings became more frequent, and the men of the LSSAH mixed this intense military training with their duties as Hitler's guard of honour at major political, social and cultural events, from the Bayreuth Festival through to the march past following the annexation of Austria in April 1938. The men of the Leibstandarte were also in the thick of things during the occupation of the Sudetenland and the subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia.
By September 1939 and the German invasion of Poland, the ranks of the Leibstandarte had expanded to an overall strength of some 3,700 men divided into four infantry battalions complete with supporting artillery, reconnaisance and anti-tank units. The men of Germany's new élite unit were now ready for what would the beginning of their greatest challenge: the Second World War had begun.