In warfare throughout history we are confronted with brutality. The ancient Mongols left a trail of death and devastation that was complete and heartless. We often forget today of the hundred of cities that have been ‘sacked’ by invaders throughout time where no one was spared. Recent history is no exception to this dark side of martial struggle. During World war two several heinous units existed. In the Pacific theater the Japanese Army’s top secret Unit 721 is the subject of recent exposure in its barbaric activities. In the European theater dozens of Soviet NKVD units committed war crimes that will probably never be known. These however are eclipsed by the butchers of SS General Doctor Oskar Dirlewanger’s special commando unit named after him. The unit was formed from hardened criminals who were given the chance to either die in concentration camps or serve in Dirlewanger’s horde. Once in the unit it really was a case of the inmates running the asylum. In fact, many of the members were recruited from asylums for the criminally insane towards the end of the war. Starting off as a small company sized unit of some 84 men, it grew to a full division of more than 6,000.  

Their commander was himself a convicted child molester and rapist and only military service allowed him to escape from the concentration camp as well. It was known that Dirlewanger was paranoid in command, prone to giving extreme orders and enforcing his own brand of battlefield discipline. He ordered several of his own men shot or hung for what he saw as breaches of discipline. He led from the front when his unit was in combat and was often wounded. When conducting so called ‘punitive’ operations he was a total brute, directing the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians in which he took a very hands on part. He was captured while in hospital after the war and never made it to a war crimes trial.

General Dr. Oskar Dirlewanger was born on September 26, 1895. No matter what his historical role as a butcher on the battlefield, he was a very intelligent and apparently almost suicidal brave man. Dirlewanger was born to a middle class family in the Schwaban region of Imperial Germany. He attended University and joined the army as a reserve lieutenant at the beginning of world war one. He was twice wounded and won both classes of the Iron Cross. In the confusing period of postwar Weimar Germany he continued to serve as a soldier in various Freikorps street brigades until as late as 1920. He then finished his postgraduate education, becoming a professor of Political Science. He joined the NSDAP (Nazi party) in 1923, but was eventually expelled after he first joined it because he crashed a staff car while fooling around with a young girl. He rejoined years later.  


Dirlewanger's questionable personality came to the surface in 1934 when he was convicted of molesting a young girl. Because of this he became bankrupt and lost his career on top of serving a two year prison sentence. On the loose for only a few months he was arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp for a second molestation charge. While at Dachau he contacted an old army friend now high up in the SS and obtained release from the camp on condition that he join the newly formed Condor Legion of Nazi volunteers fighting in the Spanish Civil war in Spain. He was wounded three times and returned to Germany when the unit disbanded in 1939. He was then granted a commission in the SS as a SS-Untersturmführer. However since he was known to be a rather loathsome individual (even by the SS's standards!) he was considered something of a pariah. In June 1940, when an idea came to fruition to form an anti-partisan security unit from all of the convicted poachers sitting in German prisons, the man chosen was Dirlewanger. The 2000 imprisoned poachers were only able to scrounge 84 physically fit volunteers so Dirlewanger was instructed to recruit condemned men from the SS's penal units to flesh out the unit. By July the unit was dubbed after its already infamous commander, SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger and numbered 300 or so troopers. The unit was sent to the eastern front held the worst record for atrocities possibly in modern history. Expanded to a battalion in September and then to a full three battalion regiment in 1943, it combed concentration camps, POW centers, and every black hole in Hitler’s Germany and attracted the worst of the worst. During the war Dirlewanger was wounded seven times from 1940-45, always leading his band of criminals from the front. He received the clasp (second award) to his Iron Cross II on May 24, 1942, and that to his Iron Cross I on September 16, 1942. Twice the unit was all but wiped out, only to be rebuilt from scratch. In December 1944 it was doubled in size and formed into a brigade of some 4000 men. On 14 February 1945, the brigade was renamed 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. Although upgraded to divisional status, it never reached above brigade strength. Dirlewanger would never have the chance to command this division, however.


On the February 15th, Dirlewanger was seriously injured in combat for the twelfth time. Oskar Dirlewanger was recovering from his last wound at a hospital in Althausen, Bavaria, at the end of the war. On June 1st, 1945, French occupation forces used Polish soldiers in their service to forcibly bring him to the Althausen jail. Dirlewanger was beaten and tortured over the next several days. He died under torture from the Polish guards during the night of June 4-5. This information was suppressed at the time, and this led to many fantastic stories of sightings of him all over the world. He was something of a Nazi version of Bigfoot with sightings of him everywhere. He was said to have served in the French Foreign legion at Dien Bien Phu, or spotted in Paraguay teaching at the military academy, or even as an advisor to the CIA-backed dictator General Mohammed Naguib in Egypt. These stories however were put to an end when his remains were exhumed at Althausen and identified in 1960. His troubled soul is buried there in a plainly marked grave.


SS-Obergruppenführer Gottlob Berger- Dirlewanger's Guardian Angel and the man who both sprung him from Dachau and gave him his command.


The SS had an idea to use military service to rehabilitate convicts, beginning with poachers. It was felt that these men could be made into good soldiers, mainly because they were experienced at riflery and wood craft. It was felt that poachers were in possession of skills which would make them excellent scouts and anti-partisan troops. On June 15, 1940, the Wilddiebkommando Oranienburg (Poacher's Command) was formed.. By July 1, 1940, the unit numbered 84 men.


By the end of the year the unit was composed of increasing numbers of military criminals drawn from the so called 999 penal battalions and the SS Military Prison Camp at Matzlau near Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland). These were soldiers who had committed burglary, simple assaults and the like. While these men were to have been rehabilitated, they were in fact provided them with the ability to continue committing criminal acts with no repercussions. Desertion was common as these criminals often released themselves on their own recognizance. Some of the volunteers were kept locked in buildings while away from the front because of their unreliability! As the news spread of the unit, hundreds of concentration camp prisoners applied for service. It grew to a strength of some 700 men by 1941 and was sent to perform anti-partisan duties in occupied Poland.

  Two rare pictures purported to show motorcycle troops of the Dirlewanger Battalion in Russia 1943, from a Byelorussian website archive



While there it was answerable only to the head of the SS- Heinrich Himmler, himself. During the battalion's service in Poland, it was involved in numerous cases of corruption, looting, rape, indiscriminate slaughter, and beatings.  The military governor of the area, General FW Krüger, was disgusted with the behavior of Dirlewanger and had the unit transferred from Poland to Russia. Its conduct in Russia, rather than improving, worsened and atrocities were epidemic. From the summer of 1942 till the summer of 1944 Dirlewanger troops were based in Logoisk (now Belarus) .The battalion participated in the antipartisan punitive operations code named "May-bug", "Nordsee", "Karlsbad", "Frida", "Horgnung", "Jacob", "Magic flute", "Kottbus", "Gunter", "German" and others. In these operations over 200 villages were destroyed by the battalion and more than 120,000 civilians were killed. While in Russia, Dirlewanger's replacements came from the entire Nazi prison system and included homosexuals, increasing numbers of political prisoners (communists, socialists, trade unionists, and anarchists who applied in hope of defecting to the Soviets), patients from psychiatric hospitals and, as well as others considered unfit to serve in normal military units.


Dirlewanger in late 1944, after being awarded the Knights Cross (Ritterkreuzes) for his units service putting down the Warsaw Home Army. The Article below details the awarding of the medal in an offical Nazi Publication in October 1944.



The battalion tripled in size and was designated SS-Sonderregiment Dirlewanger. In May 1943, the ability to volunteer for service in the regiment was extended to all criminals, even those convicted of the most heinous crimes. Fifteen hundred men convicted of the most severe crimes including sex crimes, murder and arson were absorbed into the regiment. On December 30, 1943, it was wiped out in combat with the Soviet army, reporting strength of only 200 men left. Rebuilt to a full regiment of 2000, it resumed anti-partisan operations in Byelorussia which reduced the regiment's strength in half again by June1944. Withdrawn from Russia to rebuild it went into back into combat in August as part of the notorious effort to raise the Warsaw ghetto. There in the Wola district, the regiment took part in the execution of tens of thousands of civilians. The unit was then rebuilt to brigade strength (4000 men) from new criminal drafts and designated SS-Sonderbrigade Dirlewanger. It fought against the Slovak uprising in October. The unit was then sent to the frontline again which was by then in Hungary. There the political prisoners held by the unit deserted in mass to the Soviets. Little did they understand that the Red Army did not accept prisoners in SS uniforms and they were -more often that not -killed in brutal manner.


"W walce nie dawali pardonu, jak i nie oczekiwali go sami" - von dem Bach o SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger




Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger pictured in the Woli District in Warsaw 1944. Most pictures of the unit were taken then as few combat cameramen covered the action in the Ost rear area.




SS-mani atakuj± pod os³on± dzia³a szturmowego - kadr z niemieckiej kroniki filmowej

Unit in Action in Warsaw



Dirlewanger Brigade troops photographed in Warsaw 1944.



SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger

SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger The man who ordered the Unit out Poland in 1943 because of its barbarity.

In February 1945, plans were put in action to expand the brigade to divisional status, however before this could begin it was sent north to the Oder line to attempt to halt the Soviet advance. It was designated the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS. The disgraced former commander of the 4.SS-Polizei-Division, SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Schmedes, was given command as Dirlewanger was sent to the rear, suffering from his 12th war wound. The new division had many regular German troops assigned including a Pioneer and a heavy Panzerjäger component. On April 16, the unit fell back in disarray before the fresh soviet offensive. Desertion was rampant and when Schmedes attempted to reorganize his division on 25 April, he found it basically didn’t exist. The situation was very unstable to say the least with men of the 73rd Regiment lynching their commanding officer (the repulsive SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Ewald Ehlers former commandant of the Dachau concentration camp)


The remaining elements of the unit disbanded south of Magdeburg and attempted to reach the western allies. Most of the men were captured and executed by the Soviets; however Schmedes and his command staff managed to reach the Americans and surrendered on 3 May, 1945.  Tragically the legacy of this unit of butchers did not in fact die there. Today a Swedish neo-Nazi band is named Dirlewanger and the Crossed grenades patch of the 36th Division has become a hate symbol with skinhead groups.



The Dirlewangers often wore masks in the late  1944-early 1945 time period, due to the pictures taken in Warsaw
Identity disk of a trooper of the Direlwanger unit









Dirlewanger is shown all the way to the left. 1944.



TOE and Orbat of the Dirlwanger units

 Crossed rifles of the 36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS



Wilddiebkommando Oranienburg   (15 June 1940 - July 1940) consisted of 84 men of whom 79 (94%) were poachers. The unit was equipped with standard German army weapons and SS combat uniforms.


SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger   (July 1940 - 1 Sep 1940) 300 men, two thirds of them minor criminals from penal units.


SS-Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger   (1 Sep 1940 - Sep 1943) 700 men, mostly from military prisons, the original poachers almost completely wiped out.


SS-Sonderregiment Dirlewanger   (Sep 1943- Dec 1944) 2000 men split roughly into one third foreign volunteers, concentration camp inmates, and hardcore military penal convicts. The foreign volunteers were typically polish and Russian criminals who were wiped out in combat and not replaced. The equipment and armament of the unit was mainly cast off Italian and Soviet gear. During this time it wasn’t uncommon for the troopers to carry out their tasks while masked.


SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger   (19 Dec 1944 - 20 Feb 1945) 4000 men of whom, roughly 40% were inmates and another 40% from penal units.

Attached units of the Brigade

SS-Regiment 1

SS Regiment 2






36. Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS, (20 Feb 1945 - May 1945) 6000 men of whom 40% were from penal units, 15% concentration camp inmates, and 45% were regular German army.  This divisional unit was formed on February 20th, 1945 while at the Oder front from the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger and from parts of a number of homeless regular Army (not SS) units. It was a division in name only, and was considered by far the worst unit in the SS. Quality and quantities of armaments, training and leadership varied greatly not only from regiment to regiment but from platoon to platoon. 


Attached units of the Division:  

72.Waffen-Grenadier-Regiment der SS

73.Waffen-Grenadier-Regiment der SS

Panzer-Abteilung Stansdorf I

Artillerie Abteilung 36

Füsilier Kompanie 36


1244. Grenadier-Regiment- Grenadier-Regiment 1244 was made up a mix of men from various sources, about half of them were students from NCO schools and about a quarter came from the Volkssturm.







Thomas L. Jentz - Panzertruppen Vol 2: 1943-1945

 French L. MacLean - The Cruel Hunters: SS-Sonder-Kommando Dirlewanger Hitler's Most Notorious Anti-Partisan Unit

 George F. Nafziger - The German order of battle: Waffen SS and other units in World War II

 Hans-Peter Klausch - Anti-faschisten in SS Uniform: Schicksal und Widerstand der deutschen politischen KZ-Haeftlingen,

Zuchthaus-und Wehrmachtsgefangenen in der SS-Sonderformation Dirlewanger

36.Waffen-Grenadier-Division der SS at www.feldgrau.com

Hans-Peter Klausch - Anti-faschisten in SS Uniform: Schicksal und Widerstand der deutschen politischen KZ-Haeftlingen,

Zuchthaus-und Wehrmachtsgefangenen in der SS-Sonderformation Dirlewanger

Rolf Michaelis - Das SS-Sonderkommando Dirlewanger: Ein Beispiel deutscher Besatzungspolitik in Weißrussland



- Chris Eger 01.17.2001



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