They were Hitler's equivalent of the Dirty Dozen and known as the "worst of the worst" - an entire SS division made up entirely of psychopaths, murderers and rapists and led by a child molester.

The 36th Waffen SS Grenadier Division, commanded by Oskar Dirlewanger, was initially created to wage war against resistance fighters in Poland, but soon became a weapon of terror used indiscriminately against civilians and armed combatants alike, the Daily Mail reported.

Over the course of the war the unit was implicated in campaigns of rape, mass murder and poisonings including injecting Jews with strychnine and watching as they died in agony.

Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. Photo / Getty Images
Adolf Hitler is welcomed by supporters at Nuremberg. Photo / Getty Images

The first men invited to join the 36th were convicted poachers on the grounds that they could use their skills as woodsmen to track down guerrilla fighters in their countryside hideaways.

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Each man was offered a pardon for his crimes should he survive the dangerous tasks he was to undertake, which in Hitler's Germany also meant earning their citizenship back. Fifty-five men signed up for the job.

But the missions were so dangerous, and Dirlewanger so given to executing his men for infractions, that he quickly ran out of recruits. It was then that the offer was opened up to all manner of criminals.

While offenders were typically banned from wielding firearms in the army, they were welcomed by Dirlewanger who amassed a band of several hundred murderers, rapists and those deemed criminally insane.

In one of their most infamous exploits, his men were asked to put down the Warsaw Uprising. What followed was the Wola Massacre, in which 40,000 civilians in that district were slaughtered in two weeks.

Dirlewanger's men went after everyone, including all hospital patients and staff, and even butchered 500 children found hiding in one building. A soldier serving in the area later said Dirlewanger that ordered his troops to conserve ammunition by finished the youngsters off with rifle butts and bayonets.

Dirlewanger's men went after everyone, including all hospital patients and staff, and even butchered 500 children found hiding in one building. Photo / Supplied
Dirlewanger's men went after everyone, including all hospital patients and staff, and even butchered 500 children found hiding in one building. Photo / Supplied

The 36th did not emerge from the uprising unscathed, however. It went into Warsaw with just over 800 men, and lost 2700 during the fighting including reinforcements, a casualty rate of 315 per cent.

Dirlewanger did survive, however, and was recommended for an Iron Cross for his efforts. The 'heroics' of the men also saw their then-regiment upgraded to a division for the first time, and reinforce to a strength of 4000.

But as the war dragged on and defeat became more of a possibility, desertion became more and more common and the division began to fall apart.

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On 1 May 1945, the Soviets all-but wiped the divison out in the Halbe Pocket. Fritz Schmedes, who was then in command after Dirlewanger was wounded in an earlier battle, marched the remaining 700 men to the US Army, where they surrendered on May 3.

Who were the Dirty Dozen?

The Dirty Dozen is an Oscar-winning film about a gang of 12 convicted murderers and a rebellious US Army major who must lead them on a mission to assassinate Nazi officers during the Second World War.

Lee Marvin plays Major Reisman, an upstart with a history of getting things done who is ordered to interview military prisoners with death sentences or long terms for a secret mission.

Lee Marvin in movie art for the film 'The Dirty Dozen', 1967. Photo / Getty Images
Lee Marvin in movie art for the film 'The Dirty Dozen', 1967. Photo / Getty Images

Their objective will be to parachute behind enemy lines on the eve of D-Day in order to kill as many German officers as possible and cause chaos behind the enemy lines.

Recruited and trained by Reisman under the supervision Sergeant Bowren, played by Richard Jaeckel, the men are eventually dropped into France for their mission.

Things begin to go awry when one of the men is killed during the jump, but the others manage to infiltrate a meeting of German officers and imprison them in a bomb shelter.

A firefight with guards ensues in which all but one of the prisoners - Joseph Wladislaw, played by Charles Bronson - is killed, though the men manage to successfully kill the officers.

Wladislaw is eventually exonerated of his crimes by General Worden, played by Ernest Borgnine.

The film was based on a book by the same name, written by E.M. Nathanson. It won the Oscar for best effects, and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, for John Cassavetes, Best Sound and Best Film Editing.