The Totenkopf division was numbered with the "Germanic" divisions of the Waffen-SS. These included also the SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Das Reich, and SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Wiking.
Having missed the Polish campaign, Totenkopf was initially held in reserve during the assault into France and the Low Countries in May 1940. They were committed on 16 May to the Front in Belgium. The Totenkopf men fought fanatically, suffering heavy losses.
Within a week of this initial commitment the division's first war crime had already been committed. At Le Paradis 4th Kompanie, I Abteilung, commanded by SS-Obersturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, machine-gunned 97 out of 99 British officers and men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment after they had surrendered to them; two survived. After the war, Knöchlein was tried by a British Court and convicted for war crimes in 1948. He was sentenced to death and hanged.
Totenkopf saw action a number of times during the French campaign. To the north-east of Cambrai the division took 16,000 French prisoners. Whilst subsequently trying to drive through to the coast they encountered a major Anglo-French force which they had a great deal of difficulty stopping and came perilously close to panic. Totenkopf had to resort to firing artillery pieces in an anti-tank role, and were saved only by the intervention of Luftwaffe dive-bombers. It then suffered heavy losses during the taking of the La Bassée Canal. Further stiff resistance was then encountered at both Béthune and Le Paradis. The French surrender found the division located near the Spanish border, where it was to stay, resting and refitting, until April 1941. Totenkopf had suffered heavy losses during the campaign, including over 300 officers. Replacement personnel were supplied, this time via regular Waffen-SS recruitment as opposed to coming from the camps. Flak and artillery battalions were added to its strength.
In April 1941, the division was ordered East to join Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb's Army Group North. Leeb's Army Group was tasked with advancing on Leningrad and formed the northern wing of Operation Barbarossa. Totenkopf saw action in Lithuania and Latvia, and by July had breached the vaunted Stalin Line. The division then advanced by Demjansk to Leningrad where it was involved in heavy fighting from July 31 to August 25.
During Autumn and Winter of 1941, the Soviets launched a number of operations against the German lines in the Northern sector of the Front. During one of these operations, the Division was encircled for several months near Demjansk in what would come to be known as the Demjansk Pocket. During these kessel battles, Totenkopf suffered so greatly that, due to its reduced size, it was re-designated Kampfgruppe Eicke. The division was involved in ferocious fighting to hold the pocket. SS-Hauptscharführer Erwin Meierdress of the Sturmgeschütze-Batterie Totenkopf formed a Kampfgruppe of about 120 men and held the strategic town of Bjakowo despite repeated determined enemy attempts to capture the town. During these battles, Meierdress personally destroyed several enemy tanks in his StuG III. He was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions during this period. In April 1942, the division broke out of the pocket and managed to reach friendly lines.
At Demjansk, about 80% of its soldiers were killed in action. The remnants of the Division were pulled out of action in late October, 1942 and sent to France to be refitted. While in France, the Division took part in Case Anton, the takeover of Vichy France in November 1942. For this operation, the division was supplied with a Panzer regiment and redesignated 3.SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Totenkopf. Thanks to the persuasive efforts of Himmler and SS-Obergruppenführer Paul Hausser, all SS panzergrenadier divisions received a full regiment of panzers, so were full strength panzer divisions in all but name. The division remained in France until February, 1943, when their old commander, Theodor Eicke, resumed control.
SS-Panzerkorps, including Totenkopf, was then shifted north to take part in Operation Citadel, the great offensive to reduce the Kursk salient. It was during this period that The 3.SS-Panzerregiment received a company of Tiger I heavy tanks. (9./SS-Panzerregiment 3).
The attack was launched on 5 July 1943, after a massive Soviet artillery barrage fell on the German assembly areas. The SS-Panzerkorps was to attack the southern flank of the salient as the spearhead for Generaloberst Hermann Hoth's 4.Panzer-Armee.
The Totenkopf covered the advance on the SS-Panzerkops left flank, with the Leibstandarte forming the spearhead. SS-Panzer-Regiment 3 advanced in a panzerkeil across the hot and dusty steppe. Despite encountering stiff Soviet resistance and several pakfronts, the Totenkopf's panzers continued the advance, albeit at a slower pace than had been planned. Hausser ordered his SS-Panzerkorps to split in two, with the Totenkopf crossing the Psel river northwards and then continuing on towards the town of Prokhorovka.
In the early morning of 9 July, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 6 Theodor Eicke attacked northwards, crossing the Psel and attempted to seize the strategic Hill 226.6, located to the east of the fortified village of Kliuchi. The attack was rebuffed by the defending Soviets. The failure to capture the hill meant that the drive along the north bank of the Psel was temporarily halted, forcing Hausser to also delay the Southern advance. In the afternoon, regiment Eicke managed to redeem itself by capturing the hill, but the northern advance slowed and the majority of the division was still south of the Psel, where elements of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 5 Thule continued to advance towards Prokhorovka and cover the flank of the Leibstandarte.
By July 11, SS-Hauptsturmführer Erwin Meierdress had led his I./SS-Panzer-Regiment 3 across the Psel on hastily constructed pontoon bridges, reinforcing the tenuous position. The forces in the bridgehead were subjected to several furious Soviet attacks, but with the support of Meierdress' panzers they held their ground and slowly expanded the bridgehead, securing the village of Kliuchi. Strong Soviet opposition had severely slowed division's advance along the north bank. In the afternoon of 12 July, near the village of Andre'evka on the south bank of the Psel, the Soviets launched a major counterattack against Regiment Thule and the division's StuG Abteilung.
SS-Brigadeführer Hermann Priess, the Totenkopf's commander, ordered Meierdress' abteilung to advance and support the beleaguered forces. The PzKpfw IIIs and PzKpfw IVs of Meierdress' unit were supported by the Totenkopf's Tiger I company, 9(schwere)./SS-Panzer-Regiment 3. In ferocious combat with the lead units of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army, Meierdress managed to halt the Soviet assault, destroying many Soviet T-34s, but at the cost of the majority of the division's remaining operational panzers.
While the SS-Panzerkorps had halted the Soviet counteroffensive and inflicted heavy casualties, it had exhausted itself and was no longer capable of offensive action. Manstein attempted to commit his reserve, the XXIV.Panzerkorps, but Hitler refused to authorise this. On 14 July, Hitler called off the operation.
Totenkopf was involved in heavy fighting over the next several weeks. During the July-August battles for Hill 213 and the town of Stepanowka, the division suffered heavy losses, and over the course of the campaign on the Mius-Front it suffered more casualties than it had during Operation Citadel. By the time the Soviet bridgehead was eliminated, the division had lost 1500 men and the Panzer regiment was reduced to 20 tanks.
The Totenkopf was then moved North, back to Kharkov. Along with Das Reich, Totenkopf, took part in the battles to halt Operation Rumyantsev and to prevent the Soviet capture of the city. Although the two divisions managed to halt the offensive, inflicting heavy casualties and destroying over 800 tanks, the Soviets outflanked the defenders, forcing them to abandon the city on 23 August.
By early September, the Totenkopf reached the Dniepr. Elements of the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army had forced a crossing at Kremenchug and were soon threatening to break through the Dniepr line. Totenkopf was thrown into action against the bridgehead.
In October 1943, the division was reformed as 3.SS-Panzer-Division Totenkopf. The Panzer abteilung was officially upgraded to a regiment, and the two Panzergrenadier regiments were given the honorary titles Theodor Eicke and Thule.
After holding the Kremenchug bridgehead for several months, the Soviets finally effected a breakout, pushing Totenkopf and the other axis divisions involved back towards the Romanian border. By November, Totenkopf was engaged fighting intense defensive actions against Soviet attacks over the vital town of Krivoi Rog to the west of the Dniepr.
In the second week of March, after a fierce fight near Kirovograd, the Totenkopf fell back behind the Bug River. Totenkopf immediately began taking up new defensive positions. After two weeks of heavy fighting, again alongside the Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland west of Ivanovka, the Axis lines again fell back, withdrawing to the Dniestr on the Romanian border near Iaşi.
In the first week of April, Totenkopf gained a moment's respite as it rested in the area near Târgu Frumos in Romania. The division received replacements and new equipment, the division's panzer regiment receiving a component of Panthers to replace some of the outdated PzKpfw IVs. In the second week of April, heavy Soviet attacks towards Târgul Frumos meant that Totenkopf was back in action, playing a role in the decisive defensive victory. By 7 May, the front had quietened and the Totenkopf went back to the business of reorganising.
In a battle near Iaşi, elements of the division, together with elements of the Panzergrenadier-Division Großdeutschland, managed, amazingly, to halt an armoured assault by the Red Army. The assault, which in many aspects had outlines similar to those of the later British Operation Goodwood, was carried out by approximately 500 tanks, but in excellent defensive positions and through a very skillful use of the high-velocity guns of the German panzers, the German forces of only 160 panzers were able to rebuff the attacking forces and inflict a loss of as many as 400 tanks for the price of only 11 panzers, of which a few could later be repaired.
After The Soviet Operation Bagration and the destruction of Army Group Centre the German lines had been pushed back over 300 miles, to the outskirts of Warsaw. The Totenkopf arrived at the Warsaw front in late July 1944. After the launch of Operation Bagration and the collapse of Army Group Centre, the central-Eastern front was a mess, and the IV. SS-Panzerkorps was one of the only formations standing in the way of the Soviet attacks. On 1 August 1944, the Armia Krajowa, rose up in Warsaw itself, sparking the Warsaw Uprising. A column of Totenkopf Tigers was caught up in the fighting, and several were lost. The Totenkopf itself was not involved in the suppression of the revolt, instead guarding the front lines, and fighting off several Soviet probing attacks into the city's eastern suburbs.
In several furious battles near the town of Modlin in mid August, the Totenkopf, fighting alongside the 5.SS-Panzer-Division Wiking and the 1.Fallschirm-Panzer-Division Hermann Göring virtually annihilated the Soviet 3rd Tank Corps, which contained a division of communist Poles. The terrain around Modlin is excellent armour terrain, and Totenkopf's panzers exploited this to their advantage, engaging Soviet tanks from a range where the superiority of the German optics and the 75 mm high-velocity guns gave the Panthers an edge against the T-34s.
The relief attempts were to be codenamed Operation Konrad, the first attack was Konrad I. The plan was for a joint attack by the Wiking and Totenkopf from the town of Tata attacking along the line Bicske-Budapest.
Despite initial gains, Konrad I ran into heavy Soviet opposition near Bicske, and during the battle the I.Abt/SS-Panzer-Regiment 3's commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Erwin Meierdress was killed.
After the failure of the first operation, Totenkopf and Wiking launched an assault aimed at the city centre. Named Operation Konrad II, the attack reached as far as the Budapest Airport, before resistance stiffened. Gille's corps was ordered to fall back as part of a ruse to encircle Soviet units north of the city.
Operation Konrad III got underway on 18 January, 1945. Aimed at encircling ten Soviet divisions, the relief forces could not achieve their goal, despite tearing a 15 mile hole in the Soviets' line. Although they had been on the verge of rescuing the IX.Waffen-Gebirgskorps der SS, the encircled troops could not be reached and capitulated in early February.
The division was pulled back to the west, executing a fighting withdrawal from Budapest to the area near Lake Balaton, where the 6th SS Panzer Army under SS-Oberstgruppenführer Josef Dietrich was massing for the upcoming Operation Frühlingserwachen.
Gille's corps was too depleted to take part in the Operation, and instead provided flank support to assaulting divisions during the beginning of the Operation.
Totenkopf, together with Wiking, performed a holding operation on the left flank of the offensive, in the area between Velenczesee-Stuhlweissenberg. As Frühlingserwachen progressed, the division was heavily engaged preventing Soviet efforts to outflank the advancing German forces.
As the offensive stalled, the Soviets launched a major offensive, the Vienna Operation, on 15 March. Attacking the border between the Totenkopf and the 2.(Hungarian)Panzer Division, contact was soon lost between the two formations. Acting quickly, 6.Armee commander Generaloberst Hermann Balck recommended moving the I.SS-Panzerkorps north to plug the gap and prevent the encirclement of the IV.SS-Panzerkorps. Despite this quick thinking, a Führer Order authorising this move was slow in coming, and when the divisions finally began moving, it was too late.
On 22 March, the Soviet encirclement of the Totenkopf and Wiking was almost complete. Desperate, Balck threw the veteran 9.SS-Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen into the area to hold open the small corridor. In the battle to hold open the Berhida Corridor, the Hohenstaufen bled itself white, but Gille's corps managed to escape.
On 24 March, another Soviet attack threw the exhausted IV.SS-Panzerkorps back towards Vienna, all contact was lost with the neighboring I.SS-Panzerkorps and any semblance of an organised line of defence was gone. The remnants of the Totenkopf executed a fighting withdrawal into Czechoslovakia. By Early May, they were within reach of the American forces, to whom the division officially surrendered on 9 May. The Americans promptly handed Totenkopf back to the Soviets, and many Totenkopf soldiers died in Soviet Gulags.
The members of this unit were trained and led by Nazi commanders such as Theodor Eicke, Max Simon and Helmut Becker. Eicke instilled ruthlessness as a necessity in his men, and during the original training at Dachau, the troops commonly spent time guarding inmates at the nearby concentration camp. The three SS-TV Standartes which were to form the Totenkopf division saw action in Poland, where some say its soldiers were involved in war crimes.
The only documented example of war crimes against the division came under Friedrich Jeckeln where, several days into the Fall Gelb campaign, Totenkopf men committed a war crime. 14./III.Bat/Totenkopf Infanterie Regiment-2 executed 97 British troops of the Norfolk Regiment at the town of Le Paradis. The commander, SS-Obersturmführer Fritz Knöchlein (Hauptsturmführer at the time of the massacre), had accused the Norfolk Regiment of using dum-dum ammunition and therefore being in violation of the Hague Convention of 1899. However, this allegation seems unlikely because all small arms ammunition used by British and German armed forces during the conflict was fully metal jacketed. Fully metal jacketed bullets are, though highly effective and deadly, legal according to international laws. After the war, Knöchlein himself was found guilty of war crimes and was hanged.
However, by the end of 1942 the division had experienced virtually a complete turnover in personnel. The high casualty rates meant by late 1943 virtually none of the original cadre were left. However, while the division's record in the brutal Eastern Front fighting to follow is quite clean, its reputation lingered. In 1945 the members of the division were turned over by the Americans to the Soviets after their surrender at Linz. This implied a virtual death sentence: its members were sent to their deaths in camps of the Gulag with extreme hard living conditions, or instantly shot without trial. Only few of them survived the captivity.